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Commentary (May 20, 2004)

Blair struggles to survive Iraq fallout

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is desperately fighting to save his premiership, which in recent days has come under intense pressure over his pro-US Iraq policy. His steadfast support for the domestically unpopular Iraq war and his closeness to US President George W Bush have severely damaged his poll ratings and battered his authority. This has generated an unprecedented flurry of media speculation about his future. Many cabinet ministers have publicly denied that Blair's resignation is imminent, though other senior figures are less confident, believing Blair may not last beyond crucial local and European Parliament elections in June.

What is certain is that over the past week, Blair has taken an enormous pounding, which has substantially weakened him and threatens the survival of his administration. Opinion polls clearly show that he is now deeply unpopular with the electorate, nearly half of whom say they want him to resign - 46 percent say they want him out before the next general election.

More recently, several prominent figures in his own Labour Party have demanded that the prime minister quit, as polls indicate he is damaging Labour's chances in the upcoming local and European elections. The press also is awash with rumors of cabinet plots and secret pacts to unseat him.

Iraq at the heart of Blair's troubles
At the heart of all Blair's current woes lies the controversial war in Iraq, which is domestically highly unpopular. The prime minister has justified the conflict by highlighting the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of massive destruction (WMD), which he claimed were an imminent threat to Britain.

The United Kingdom has deployed about 7,900 troops to southern Iraq, around Basra, and recently has considered sending about 800 more. Though initially welcomed, these troops have engaged in fighting, and human-rights groups have accused British forces of abuse and killing of Iraqi civilians.

Blair also promised his Labour Party, many of whose members were passionately against the conflict, that the war would give a huge boost to the creation of "a viable Palestinian state". A just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a long-cherished goal of many Labour supporters - though it is now a distant glimmer, if that.

With no WMD found, Iraq looking increasingly like a Vietnam-style quagmire, and a Palestinian state looking further away than ever, Blair's declared policy objectives now lie in tatters. Phil Willis, an opposition lawmaker for the anti-war Liberal Democrat Party, sums up the feeling of many voters: "We were told that the world would be a safer place as a result of taking on Saddam Hussein and going into Iraq. Unquestionably, the world is not a safer place as a result of that. We were promised there would be a roadmap for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What we have seen is a shame."

Closeness to Bush damaging Blair
Another key factor dragging Blair down in the polls is his perceived closeness to President Bush, who is highly unpopular in the UK. Many traditional Labour supporters, as well as a large number of the party's lawmakers, feel very uneasy about Blair's close-knit ties to the US president. Over the past week, the British press has been flooded with rumors that senior cabinet ministers have demanded that Blair publicly distance himself from Bush.

Robin Cook, Blair's former foreign minister, who resigned over the Iraq war, articulated the view of many voters in an interview on Sunday. He said, "I think many people in the country, certainly in the Labour Party, are increasingly concerned [about] the difficulty Tony Blair appears to have in saying anything different from George Bush or suggesting that George Bush is doing anything that is wrong." Cook also described Bush as "one of the most right-wing presidents we have seen in the US for a long time".

Cook's opinion is very much in tune with many ordinary Labour voters. Janet Ball, a Labour Party supporter, told Asian Times Online, "Tony should definitely distance himself from Bush, who stands against everything we believe in politically. I think Tony's love affair with Bush has done us irreparable damage both internationally and nationally."

The level of criticism from within Blair's own party is much harsher than anything coming from the opposition parties, which suggests that there is a concerted effort being made by some to oust him.

So far, Blair has brushed aside criticism of his leadership and rumors of plots against him as "froth and bubble". Close aids also have said he has no intention of quitting and that he is as committed as ever to Iraq and his alliance with Bush. On Friday, he told BBC Radio, "When you do something like Iraq you've got to see it through."

Poll nightmare for Blair
Despite Blair's defiant tone, recent opinion surveys paint a very grim picture. A poll released on Sunday showed that 46 percent of respondents said he should step down before the next general election, with a further 22 percent wanting him to go soon after. Just 20 percent of the public wish him to remain in office, the poll suggests. Meanwhile, 93 percent believe the Iraq war has damaged his image, and 62 percent say it has "hugely" erode confidence in him.

Blair's negative ratings are also costing his Labour Party dearly, with predictions of heavy losses for it in the both the local and European Parliament elections, which are both scheduled for June 10. Current polls put Labour at a 17-year low of 32 percent popularity, with the main opposition Conservative Party at 36 percent and the smaller opposition Liberal Democrat Party at 22 percent. If Labour does as badly as the polls suggest, Blair may feel pressured into quitting. But should Labour do better than expected, his position will be more secure.

Party workers on the ground are gloomy. David Andrews, a life-long supporter of the Labour Party, told Asia Times Online, "The domestic issues that are so important and show what Labour have accomplished are being totally eclipsed by Blair's disastrous Iraq policy and his lap-dog behavior with Bush. We are facing a wipeout in the local and European elections."

A recent poll also found that two out of every five Labour supporters are contemplating abstaining or switching their vote in the local and European elections "to send a message to the government".

Discontent in party ranks and a barrage of bad poll results have all led to a heated debate about Blair's successor, with Finance Minister Gordon Brown coming out on top. A Sunday poll showed him as the clear favorite with the public. A survey last week also indicted that Labour would stand a much better chance of winning the next election if Brown were at the helm.

Prominent figures tell Blair to go amid plot rumors
Blair's position has been made more difficult by a host of senior Labour figures calling on him to stand down for the good of the party. Lord Puttnam, a close friend of the prime minister, explained why he thinks Blair has become an electoral liability: "The prime minister is synonymous with Iraq, and Iraq will only deliver bad news."

The distinguished former Labour finance minister Lord Dennis Healey simply said, "It is time Tony thought about stepping aside for Gordon Brown." Clare Short, another former Blair cabinet minister who quit over Iraq, endorsed Healey's comments, adding, "The presidential Blair is in danger of destroying his legacy as he becomes increasingly obsessed by his place in history."

On Saturday, John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, admitted that cabinet ministers are positioning themselves in case Blair resigns. He later tried to down play these remarks, saying that at the moment, the prime minister has no intention of standing down.

However, according to Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper, Prescott had a secret meeting with Blair's chief rival, Finance Minister Brown. According to the newspaper, the pair recently were observed holding a 90-minute, apparently clandestine, discussion in the back of a ministerial car parked outside the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar in Scotland. The paper speculated that they were brokering a deal between Brown and other potential leadership challengers and plotting a "peaceful succession" to Blair.

Blair supporters circle the wagons
By Sunday, media speculation about Blair's future reached a fever pitch, forcing senior ministers to parade before the media to deny that anything was wrong. High-profile cabinet minister Peter Hains sang Blair's praises, telling GMTV: "This is the most successful prime minister in living memory. Why would anyone want to dump him now? I cannot understand that."

Hains' words reinforced the earlier message of the diehard Blairite. Health Minister Dr John Reid, who is considered a true "disciple of Tony", passionately told BBC Radio, "Tony Blair will lead us into the next election, and God and the electorate willing, will serve a full third term as the leader of this party and this country." In an evangelical tone he added, "I have never been in any doubt about that." But at the moment, Blair's main problem is that there are not enough true believers like Reid in his party.

Can Blair survive?
If Labour really does as badly as predicted in next month's local and European Parliament elections, defending the leader will be a much more difficult task. Blair will be extremely vulnerable and his authority considerably weakened. Will his party finally dump him? Two factors may prove decisive.

First is whether Blair himself feels he should quit, if he has become an electoral liability. At the moment, he shows no signs of wanting to bow out. Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher also refused to go, and her virtual political assassination inflicted deep and bloody scars on her party. None of Blair's rivals will want to be seen to be the one who thrusts the knife in him. If Blair refuses to go, it will be difficult to remove him without a messy bloodbath that would seriously damage Labour before the general election.

Second, unpredictable events in Iraq will strongly shape Blair's (and Bush's) destiny, and there is no way of knowing what will happen in that country. At present, things appear to be getting more unstable by the day, but if the bad news suddenly stops and the transition to Iraqi sovereignty goes smoothly, the situation might change. Blair must be praying for calm to descend on Baghdad to help shore up his shaky premiership.

Even though his authority has been severely shaken, Blair might be able to cling to power. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that the odds appear to be stacking up against him. In recent days British bookmakers have sharply cut the odds on him quitting. On Thursday they were offering 14-1 against him standing down, but by Sunday they had shrunk to 3-1.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 17 May 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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