For Blair, career may hinge on U.N. vote

British public and party oppose war against Iraq

March 11, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEDGEFIELD, England - The obvious target of the next United Nations Security Council vote on Iraq is Saddam Hussein, but the decision-making - the if and when of whether to wage war to disarm him - looks increasingly like it could cause an unintended casualty: the political career of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

That is reflected in defections within Blair's own party - even his Cabinet - and in opinion polls in Britain, which show that public support for a war against Iraq hinges on a second resolution from the Security Council.

The links between war, public opinion and the prime minister's political prospects can be heard, closer to home, from the tone of the Rev. John Caden, who baptized the Blairs' four children in this village in the North Country.

"Poor Tony," the 79-year-old priest said as he tended to his duties at St. John Fisher Catholic Church, where Blair attends services when he is in his home district. "He's a good man who, I'm afraid, has put himself in a bad position. I think this vote, unfortunately, will have a lot to do about whether he can extract himself from it."

Blair's position, for months, has been that he and President Bush should seek a second Iraq resolution from the Security Council. Blair said he would back war without one only if China, France or Russia were to "unreasonably" exercise the veto power that each possesses as a permanent member of the council.

If the resolution fails to get the nine votes needed for passage, Blair would almost certainly be taking the final step into war alongside the United States without U.N. approval, without the support of the majority of Britons and contrary to his long-stated position.

"The prime minister has expressed confidence the votes are there," a spokesman in his office said yesterday. "We are not going to speculate on anything that could or could not happen under other circumstances."

To underscore the importance of securing a second resolution, Blair and his diplomats were negotiating last night with other countries on language that could help its passage. A vote is expected this week.

The United States, Britain and Spain proposed a March 17 deadline for Hussein to disarm or face war; France and Russia said yesterday that they would vote against it. Both sides are lobbying the six undecided nations among the 10 elected Security Council members who serve two-year terms - Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Cameroon, Angola and Guinea.

The threat to Blair's political career comes from within his Labor Party, which has a long history of pacifism and is deeply split on the prospect of war. One-third of the Labor members in Parliament have gone on record as stating that the case "has not yet been made" to go to war, an open act of defiance to the man who led them to victory in 1997, giving the party control of the government for the first time in 18 years.

Yesterday, the prime minister's office was scrambling to control the political damage caused when Clare Short, a Cabinet minister who oversees international development, threatened to resign if Blair leads the nation to war without U.N. backing. A junior member of his government has quit.

The danger for Blair is that if the dissension within his party spreads too broadly, his government could fall. Backbenchers have warned that if he goes to war without a second U.N. resolution, up to 200 of them could revolt, placing his party leadership in serious jeopardy.

"It's quite easy for people to come out and make too much of a political problem, but the fact is, I think he's in a terrible state," said David Mervin, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Warwick in Coventry. "His very political future is in doubt."

Nowhere are the feelings toward Blair and war more tormented than here in Sedgefield, where Blair first won political office in 1983 at the age of 30. Here, he is the local boy who made good, who at the age of 43 became Britain's youngest prime minister since 1812. And despite all the trappings of power, many here say, Blair has never forgotten that he comes from a district of broad, green fields dappled with sheep.

Early in his political career, as a backbencher with no real duties, he was free to return home from London each weekend, and he made a point of playing tennis with the priest on Saturdays and attending Mass with his wife, Cherie, who is Roman Catholic, and soon their children, on Sundays.

St. John Fisher Catholic Church is small and brick, with little more than a cement cross on its roof to distinguish it from the rowhouses connected to it on each side. It sits across the street from one of the village's six pubs. Inside the church one hears a mingling of accents - Scottish, Irish and English - that hint at its location in the far north of the country. Many Sundays, Blair volunteered to read Scripture.

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