CREWE (Reuters) - The Conservatives took Crewe by a landslide on Friday, registering their first by-election gain over Labour for 30 years and hoisting a big question mark over the future of Gordon Brown.
Several analysts believe that with few new policy options open to him and the economy unlikely to improve quickly, Brown could face a leadership challenge by the Autumn.
Conservative candidate Edward Timpson won by 7,860 votes, overturning Labour's 7,000 majority with a 17.6 percent swing -- easily enough to secure a Tory victory if it were replicated in a general election.
"It was the end of New Labour here on the streets of Crewe," said the triumphant Conservative leader David Cameron.
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman acknowledged the scale of the defeat but blamed the faltering economy.
The by-election in Crewe and Nantwich in Cheshire was triggered by the death of the Labour stalwart Gwyneth Dunwoody and follows Labour's trouncing in local election across the country earlier this month.
"This is not a sign that the next election is lost, but it is a sign the Conservatives are able now to win the next election in a way that they weren't before," said Philip Cowley, politics professor at Nottingham University.
Brown's popularity ratings have collapsed since October after he backed away from calling an early election.
Some Labour MPs are wondering whether he can deliver victory in a general election and several newspapers on Friday raised the possibility that a "stalking horse" rival might emerge before Labour's Autumn party conference.
Lifelong Labour voters on the streets of working class Crewe and the more upscale neighbouring market town of Nantwich on Thursday blamed Labour for the rising cost of living and said they had had enough.
"They must know the writing is on the wall," said 60-year-old Patrick Sutton.
"The Labour government have done nothing for me in the last 10 years, except rob me blind, and done nothing for the country, except sell off the gold reserves and go to war with Iraq," added the retired coalman.
(Editing by Steve Addison)
For an in-depth look at British politics from Reuters, double-click: here