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Friday, February 06, 2004

Blair May Be Headed For Trouble

Tony Blair, America's staunch ally in the war on terror, may be heading for some electoral problems according to a story in tomorrow's Independent:

Our poll puts the Conservatives, with 36 per cent, one point ahead of Labour, on 35 per cent. This is the first non-internet poll to put the Conservatives ahead since Michael Howard became leader last November. When NOP themselves last polled at the end of September, the Tories were on 29 per cent, nine points behind Labour.

In contrast to his two predecessors, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, the new leader has made a favourable first impression on the electorate. As many as 47 per cent say he is doing a good job; only 15 per cent think he is doing a bad job. Perhaps just as importantly, only 13 per cent do not have a view about him. Mr Howard is evidently no "quiet man'' struggling to make his voice heard.

Even Labour supporters have formed a favourable view of the Tory leader. As many as 36 per cent think he is doing a good job, just 24 per cent a bad one. Any hopes Labour might have had that Mr Howard's political past would ensure he repelled anyone other than committed Conservatives have proven wide of the mark.

The Independent's glee at these numbers does manage to peek through at times in this analysis, and this underscores Blair's problem. For years, Blair had managed to pull the Clinton trick of stealing his opponents' issues while keeping his base happy, meaning that only the true believers on the right consistently opposed him, no little effect. With his partnership with Bush on Iraq came new dangers, and they now appear to be taking their toll on Blair's standing. Instead of mollifying the center-right and holding the left, the left now feels rejected by Blair's insistence on military action -- and the center-right has no loyalty to him. In a separate but related story, 51 percent now disapprove of Blair's performance, worrying numbers in the parliamentary system where a no-confidence vote could end Blair's career:

Tony Blair's loss of public trust after the war on Iraq and the Hutton report is underlined today by a poll for The Independent showing more than half of voters want him to resign. The NOP poll, conducted this week, shows that 51 per cent want the Prime Minister to quit and 54 per cent believe he lied to the nation over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Blair's troubles have been compounded by an admission that he did not know that a claim that Iraq had WMDs ready to fire within 45 minutes referred to short-range tactical weapons and not long-range ballistic missiles. The British government had reportedly allowed the impression to continue that British interests in Cyprus were threatened by this alleged ballistic capability. Now Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, is calling for Blair to resign. Howard's own numbers have increased dramatically since he replaced Iain Duncan-Smith as opposition leader in Parliament, and the Independent reports that Conservatives actually outpoll Labour, just barely, for the first time in years.

What effect will a damaged Blair have on the US? For one thing, Bush will lose his best international ally in the war on terror and in confronting the corrupt governments of France and Russia. The loss will affect Bush's re-election bid here as well. Americans have been impressed with Blair's eloquence and determination, and it is no secret that his enthusiastic endorsement of the Iraq phase of the war bolstered Bush at home, if not abroad. With his troubles mounting, Blair will have to tend his own political fortunes and that may mean distancing himself from Bush in order to hold onto his core support in Labour. While I don't think Blair will pull away from the war on terror -- I think he's deeply and personally committed to it -- I don't see him making any more visits to the US to discuss it anytime soon. It may be that Howard will turn out to be as strong an ally of Bush in the war, but so far I'm not terribly hopeful.

The Independent also includes a snide editorial analysis of the difference between Blair and Winston Churchill, provoked by a Blair supporter's comparison to the legendary British statesman, which is headlined, "Unlike Mr Blair, Churchill had been a soldier". I would say that Tony Blair will have the fight of his political life ahead of him in the next few weeks and months.

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10:54 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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