British Politicians Unite Behind Blair

Floral tributes sit in Russell Square, near the site of the deadliest of three bombs that disrupted the London Underground on the morning of July 7.
Floral tributes sit in Russell Square, near the site of the deadliest of three bombs that disrupted the London Underground on the morning of July 7. (Bruno Vincent - Getty Images)
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

LONDON, July 11 -- One by one, leading members of Britain's House of Commons from a wide range of political parties rose on Monday afternoon to pledge their solidarity with the people of London over last week's bomb attacks and to shower praise on one man: Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The tributes were led by Michael Howard, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who over the weekend had called for an inquiry into the security services' preparations for terrorist attacks. Howard solemnly extolled the "the calm, resolute and statesmanlike way in which the government has responded" to the attacks on London's subway and bus system that killed at least 52 people. "We are all in this together," he concluded.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party that has vociferously opposed the war in Iraq, pledged his "wholehearted support." Tony Wright, a Labor Party member of Parliament and vocal antiwar critic, said it was "dangerous nonsense" to even suggest that the attacks were in any way connected to Britain's participation in the war. Not one legislator criticized Blair.

He, in turn, praised them "for demonstrating such dignity and such unity in the face of evil." It was, he said, "another reason why we will succeed and the terrorists will fail."

The wall-to-wall solidarity reflects a traditional British instinct to rally around their leaders during a time of crisis. But analysts said it also reflects Blair's extraordinary gift for articulating the public mood at such moments and demonstrates one of his greatest strengths as a political leader.

"It was an astonishingly positive moment for Blair, almost a eulogy," said Stephan Shakespeare, director of public opinion research for the YouGov polling company. "Nobody wanted to be seen trying to score political points. At the same time, there's a general wave of sentiment that Blair has done very, very well these past few weeks."

Less than a week ago, Blair was basking in the prestige of hosting the Group of Eight summit of leaders of major industrial nations at the Gleneagles resort in Scotland. He spoke for most Britons in expressing an almost giddy sense of jubilation over London's upset triumph over Paris in winning the right to host the 2012 Olympics. He had spent the previous three days with members of the International Olympic Committee in Singapore, lobbying for London's bid.

One day later, when the attacks were announced and triumph turned to tragedy, he shifted into a mood of somber determination with the same sense of conviction.

It was a day that Blair had long anticipated with dread, his aides said. Intelligence and security officials had warned of a threat posed by hundreds and perhaps even thousands of sympathizers of the al Qaeda terrorist network living in Britain. The officials were especially anxious before the May 5 election, fearing a repetition of the March 2004 bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191 people.

Those attacks triggered such intense criticism of Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar that his ruling party, then well ahead in public opinion polls, lost the election three days later. Voters were particularly angry that Aznar's aides immediately blamed Basque separatists rather than Islamic extremists, but the attacks also tapped into a deep reservoir of hostility toward Spain's participation in the Iraq war.

Britain's martial traditions -- and the public's response to domestic attacks -- are very different. While Blair has been sharply criticized and politically battered over the Iraq war, few have accused him of playing down terrorist threats.

Blair has made clear that he believed the threat was real and had pressed for broader anti-terrorism powers that critics said would endanger Britain's traditional freedoms. "Should any terrorist act occur, there will not be any debate about civil liberties," Blair warned the House of Commons in March. "There will be a debate about the advice the government received and whether they followed it. I've got the advice, I intend to follow it."

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