Blair Under Siege
By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; 10:03 AM
Tony Blair is a man besieged. As the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq gets increasingly more difficult to support, his poll numbers are dropping. Mistrust among fellow members of the Labor Party is running high. The British online press is abuzz with talk of succession. Even his closest aides may be plotting against him.
So when a harmless missile struck Blair between the shoulder blades as he spoke to British parliament on Wednesday, who could blame him if he thought he had been stabbed in the back.
The British press is asking if Blair can survive? The consensus answer: his political future depends on the situation in Iraq.
"The perception that Mr Blair's days are numbered is held widely" among British voters, according to the Financial Times (subscription). Interviews with people on the streets of Birmingham in middle England, a bellwether of public opinion like Ohio is in the United States, reveal Blair "as embattled, untrustworthy and prematurely aged," the FT reported Wednesday.
Few think Blair will quit unless senior Labor leaders become convinced he is an electoral liability for the party.
"The political obituaries would be overwhelmingly negative," writes columnist Bruce Anderson in the Independent. "The PM also insists, as he should, that he has a duty to complete the task in Iraq."
But many Labor members of parliament loathe "the task in Iraq." They opposed Blair's support for President Bush's call for preemptive war. Having predicted the war would be a fiasco, these members of parliament now feel vindicated. They fear the war is already a liability.
"Although the situation in Iraq may not be a doorstep issue," says former member of parliament Michael Brown in the Independent, "it has poisoned the trust of Labour stalwarts."
Blair's likely successor would be treasury minister Gordon Brown who badly wants the top job, giving rise to speculation that Blair's own friends may be plotting his demise. The story was fueled by an interview that John Prescott, a Labor party leader, gave to the Sunday Times in which he said Blair's cabinet ministers were maneuvering for succession.
An eagle-eyed reporter spotted Prescott chatting with Brown for 90 minutes in a black Jaguar in the parking lot of a Scottish oyster bar. The Sunday Herald in Glasgow concluded that the two were strategizing about the post-Blair era. (Prescott described the story as "press prattle.")
Blair's friends told the Independent (subscription) on Tuesday that the prime minister plans to lead his party into the next general election (scheduled for January 2005) and to serve for one or two more years before handing over power to Brown.
"To exchange Blair for Brown in mid-campaign would be tantamount to an admission of defeat" in Iraq, argues Daniel Johnson in the Daily Telegraph. The result would be a "betrayal" that would poison relations with the United States, even if the Democrats win in November, he says.
Peter Mandelson, one of Blair's closest confidantes, writes in the Scotsman (registration) that it is "a sign of the maturity and steadiness" that "deepening anxiety over Iraq is not being turned into a personal revolt against the Prime Minister, contrary to the impression being created by some in the media."
But the anger at Blair, says Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, "is spread much wider than a few chatterers in university towns."
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