Political woes worsening for Britain's Blair

Parliament leader quits

more Labor members likely to reject war pact

`Ditches' await down the road

Dead For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Lacking the U.N. Security Council support he had desperately sought for military action against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced growing revolt from his Labor Party yesterday, including the resignation of one of his highest-profile Cabinet members.

Anti-war protesters, meanwhile, promised a civil disobedience campaign before a vote expected today in the House of Commons on a resolution supporting war.

Blair's short-term political future seemed secure, with no credible threat to his leadership while 45,000 British troops are fighting alongside American forces. But up to 160 of Labor's 410 members of Parliament are expected to break ranks and vote against a war resolution.

Blair's supporters in Labor, along with votes from the opposition Conservatives, ensure the resolution's passage, but the number of Labor dissenters could provide a gauge of Blair's strength.

Robin Cook, Blair's leader in the House of Commons, announced after an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday that he was resigning. Last night, he said he held Blair blameless for the lack of a new Security Council resolution but said he could not support a war with so many countries divided. "I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support," Cook said in a statement.

In his resignation letter, he wrote: "It is not your fault that those attempts failed. However, the evident importance that we attached to a second resolution makes it all the more difficult to proceed without one, and without agreement in any other international forum."

Political analysts said yesterday that even in the case of a short war with few British casualties, Blair would probably be weakened politically for entering a war that the vast majority of Britons strongly oppose. Polls here show only about 20 percent of Britons would support a war without a new United Nations resolution, and Blair's approval ratings are the lowest since he became prime minister in 1997.

Last summer, before questions of disarming Iraq took the world stage, polls pegged Blair as the most popular prime minister in modern British political history.

"The best-case scenario for Blair is that once this is over, his party has fallen out of love with him but that there is no serious challenge to his leadership," said David Baker, senior lecturer on British politics at the University of Warwick in London. "I think under almost any scenario, he will be weakened considerably. I doubt he saw this coming a few months back."

Said Glen Rangwala, lecturer in politics at Cambridge University: "The idea of ditching the leader at this stage is just too late. That said, there are ditches down the road, and he could end up in one of them."

One-quarter of the Labor members in Parliament would need to ask for a party conference to challenge Blair's leadership. If that happened, elections would be held shortly after the conference.

One other Cabinet member, Clare Short, has threatened to resign if war is waged but has remained with the government. Cook's departure is seen as much more significant.

He has held major posts for Labor since 1986 and became foreign secretary under Blair when the party returned to power in 1997, after 18 years on the sidelines. Respected even by detractors for his intellectual heft and debating skills, he was the choice of many Labor members to lead the party.

He was demoted to leader of the Commons in a Cabinet shuffle in 2001, after Blair won re-election in a landslide, but he showed no bitterness and until his resignation yesterday remained publicly loyal to the prime minister.

The government's attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, dashed any hopes from war foes yesterday that the war would be judged illegal. Goldsmith said the legal authority for war was granted in three previous U.N. resolutions, including 1441, the last one about Iraq passed by the Security Council.

That did not stop protesters from demonstrating against the morality of any war. Dozens of protesters lay on the steps of the Foreign Ministry yesterday, covered with blood and forcing police to carry them away.

The anti-war movement in Britain is strong and broad. Last month between 750,000 and 2 million people marched against any war with Iraq in the largest public protest in British history.

Husniye Akpinar, spokeswoman for the Stop the War Coalition, leading organizer of the protest, said another mass protest would be held in London on Saturday. She said smaller demonstrations would be held until then.

The coalition was calling on working Britons to walk off their jobs for brief periods over the next several days.

"Our disobedience will be less harmful than the disobedience of our leaders who are waging war against the will of the people," Akpinar said. "We are waging peace."

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