'Bush Link' Hurting Blair on Home Front
Polls Show Serious Damage to Standing, Fueling Speculation About Premier's Future
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A20
LONDON, May 12 -- Tony Blair's unswerving support for President Bush over Iraq is doing extensive damage to the British prime minister's standing at home and could even lead to his resignation, according to politicians, analysts and polls.
Opposition politicians and critics within his ruling Labor Party are hammering away at the government over allegations that it failed both to properly investigate accusations that British troops have mistreated Iraqi prisoners and civilians and to raise with its U.S. allies accusations about American misconduct.
Blair's cabinet ministers have contradicted one another over how the government dealt with a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross about the abuses. And new polls indicate that the government could sustain big losses in elections for local government and the European Parliament next month as voters punish Blair over Iraq.
All of these problems have helped fuel a new round of speculation about Blair's future, with some colleagues in the House of Commons suggesting that he may feel compelled to step down this summer and turn over the reins to the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. Blair's closest political intimates insist that will not happen.
Some politicians have advised Blair to distance himself publicly from President Bush, whose policies have never been popular here and who is now considered anathema to a broad cross-section of the British public. But people who know Blair well say there is no chance the prime minister will do so.
"He's been amazingly loyal" to Bush, Bruce George, chairman of the House of Commons defense select committee, said in an interview. "But the image that the media is creating of somebody who is a lickspittle -- who jumps high upon request -- is incredibly damaging to Blair."
George in many ways epitomizes the views of moderate Laborites who have backed Blair. A confirmed pro-American, George argues that the United States and Britain must hang tough in Iraq despite current problems. Yet he also contends that Blair must find a way to demonstrate that his views are being heeded in Washington.
"I know President Bush has his own problems, but I think it would be wise of the prime minister to be able to exercise a little bit publicly the influence he is having," George said. "And if he's not having much influence, then this would cast doubt on why he and the British are paying such a heavy price."
Blair's staunchest supporters insist that the prime minister has wielded influence over Bush. Labor members of Parliament have contended, for example, that Blair advised Bush not to send troops into the heart of the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the recent fighting there and discussed the need for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to apologize for U.S. mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
An opinion poll published Tuesday in the Times of London newspaper showed support for the Labor Party at a 17-year low, with only 19 percent of respondents declaring themselves satisfied with the government. Although the survey also showed that most voters still preferred a Labor government over one led by the opposition Conservatives, 40 percent of Labor supporters surveyed said they would use the June 10 elections "to send a message to the Labor government that they need to do better."
"It's the Bush link that's hurting the most," said Peter Riddell, who analyzed the survey results for the Times and has written a book about British-American relations. "There's real hostility, and there's the sense that Blair is stuck."
Riddell and other analysts say Blair finds himself in a politician's nightmare scenario: tied to an American policy in Iraq that could determine his future but over which he has little or no control. "He's lost his freedom of maneuver and yet he can't show anything for it," Riddell said.
The controversy over the Red Cross report, which came up again in a spirited House of Commons debate Wednesday, illustrates Blair's problem. Allegations of British misconduct made in the report, which was presented to U.S. and British officials in Iraq in February, were relatively mild compared to those made against U.S. forces. Yet Blair and his cabinet ministers have come under criticism because they did not see the report's contents until early this week.
"A devastating Red Cross report is presented to the government in February," Michael Howard, leader of the Conservatives, said in the Commons. "The armed forces minister says he has never seen it, the defense secretary says he wouldn't have expected to see it, the foreign secretary says he should have seen it but didn't, and the prime minister says he knew nothing about it. How can the people of this country have confidence in this prime minister and his government?"
Blair replied that the report had not been passed on to ministers because its three specific allegations of misconduct against British troops had been known and addressed months earlier. But Howard suggested that Blair should have been made aware of the report's much more extensive allegations against U.S. forces because they had added "immeasurably" to the dangers faced by British troops seeking to maintain law and order in southern Iraq. American misconduct, he said, had led to the "greatest crisis in Iraq since the war ended."
Jon Owen Jones, a Labor lawmaker, then raised more sharply the issue of Britain's control over its own forces in Iraq. "To what degree do we retain any independent responsibility to arrange for the timing by which we leave?" he asked Blair.
The prime minister responded that most Iraqis were delighted to be rid of Saddam Hussein, the ousted president, and added: "We will not leave until the job is properly done, and we have made sure the wish of the Iraqis for a sovereign, stable democratic Iraq is delivered."
Blair supporters say the prime minister is aware that Iraq has become a major political problem but is determined to survive the current storm. "His mood is absolutely unwavering on this point," said a colleague who talks frequently to Blair and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Any suggestion anywhere that it's in his mind to think about stepping down is totally wrong."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company