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."
When word of the bombings first broke last week, Blair faced TV cameras at the G-8 summit in Scotland looking tight-lipped and shaken. His condemnation of the attacks was delivered from scribbled notes, an aide said, even before he knew the exact dimensions of the carnage. Then, around noon, he appeared again, flanked by other G-8 leaders, to read a formal statement endorsed by all of them. Each time the message was the same: resolve to identify and find the attackers; grim determination to carry on; and praise for Islam and the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims.
"He just seemed to capture the mood of the moment in a phrase or two," said Robert Worcester, chairman of Market & Opinion Research International, a polling group. "It's the same thing he did when Princess Diana died in 1997 and after September 11."
Blair then took off in a Chinook military helicopter for London, where his first stop was a meeting of the Cobra committee, the government's crisis management team. He then met with Howard and Kennedy to brief them on events. At 5:30 he made another televised statement to the nation before heading back to Gleneagles to resume his participation in the G-8 summit the next morning on less than four hours' sleep.
In the House of Commons on Monday, even the Rev. Ian Paisley, a longtime political antagonist from Northern Ireland, felt compelled to honor Blair's performance. "You had a hard week flying here, there and everywhere, and you also had good days but very grim days and very sad days and I think the whole country can salute you today and thank you," Paisley said.
Blair was able to count on solid support from unexpected places. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, normally an antagonist from the left, weighed in with a ringing condemnation of the attacks, which he said had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. He noted that the blows had been struck against "ordinary working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old."
He has also found support in his plea that Britain's Muslim community not be blamed for the presumed actions of a few. When the former national police commissioner, John Stevens, wrote in the News of the World newspaper on Sunday that there were 3,000 al Qaeda supporters in Britain, Blair's supporters quietly spread the word among journalists and politicians that this was unhelpful because it could stir religious tensions.
Howard's Conservatives had originally floated a trial balloon over the weekend calling for an inquiry into whether there was an intelligence failure before the attacks. But by Monday afternoon's session, he had backed away from the proposal, gently suggesting only that further study should be done after the bombers were identified and caught. Blair readily agreed.
When one vocal antiwar critic, Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party, asked about a report that Italy, Britain and the United States were all terrorist targets because of their support for the war in Iraq, Blair responded that the attacks were "aimed at our way of life, not at any particular government or any particular policy."
No one disputed his characterization. "It was actually quite bold to put it as strongly as that," Shakespeare said. "He basically defied anyone to answer him back, and no one dared to."