War fallout erodes Blair's domestic position

Britain's prime minister burdened by choices on Iraq, alliance with Bush

September 29, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BRIGHTON, England - Prime Minister Tony Blair had to know weeks in advance of speaking to his political party yesterday that rallying its support would be no easy task.

But in the hours before he addressed his Labor Party delegates, events at home and in Iraq converged to illustrate - as at no other time in Blair's seven-year tenure as prime minister - just how much political trouble he is in.

Blair apologized yesterday for going to war on faulty intelligence information but added, "The problem is I can't apologize - sincerely, anyway - for removing Saddam [Hussein]."

While he and President Bush have been joined at the holster over Iraq, the war and its bloody aftermath appear to be hurting the prime minister's political fortunes far more severely than those of the president.

Blair had already been battered politically for more than a year, with polls showing his decision to go to war transforming him from the most popular prime minister in British history to one of the most disliked.

Blair said he wanted to address events in Iraq "head on" and confessed to being "fallible" in his judgments and apologized for using bad intelligence to justify going to war.

But he forcefully said that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had made him a leader who recognized that threats must be dealt with and not wished away, and he just as forcefully rejected barbs from political opponents that his decision to go to war was little more than "pandering to George Bush."

"I know this issue has divided the country. I entirely understand why many disagree," Blair said. "So I do not minimize whatever difference some of you have with me over Iraq. And the only healing can come from understanding that the decision, whether agreed with or not, was taken because I believe, genuinely, Britain's future security depends on it."

He faced a large number of critics.

For more than a week, the kidnapping of a British contractor in Baghdad has dominated the news here, with the worker's brother pointedly blaming Blair and demanding his resignation.

A new threat to kill the hostage was made early yesterday, about the same time two more British soldiers were killed in Basra, leading to television images that no politician wants: a split screen, with Blair basking in applause on one side and scenes of a difficult, unpopular war on the other.

Two hours before Blair's speech, hunters upset with a proposed ban on using dogs to kill foxes - and sensing a weakened prime minister with little stomach for any fight he can avoid - impaled a horse with a stake through its heart and then tied it, dead, to a lamppost near the conference center where Blair would speak.

Thousands of hunters and anti-war protesters then clogged the streets of this seaside town, and several later interrupted Blair's speech inside the conference hall.

"The prime minister is on his back foot, and farther back on that foot than ever," said David Baker, a professor of politics at the University of Warwick. "Every weakness of his can be traced to Iraq. The sense among people here is, it was his certainty that led us there, his mistake in taking us there, and his mistake - along with Mr. Bush - in failing to realize what a postwar Iraq would look like.

"Unfortunately for Mr. Blair, those judgments are being used and will continue to be used in issues that don't even touch on the war."

Strong political record

Few people are writing Blair's political obituary just yet. Since taking control of his party 10 years ago, he has led Labor to two convincing victories, and the opposition Conservative Party has never fully recovered from giving Margaret Thatcher the sack.

Blair is a persuasive speaker with a reputation in political circles for being deceptively ruthless, and even Labor backbenchers furious over the war are nervous that division could put the party out of power.

But polls released last week showed the Conservatives and Labor favored about evenly among voters. And even the Liberal Democrat party, which has historically run a distant third, has pulled even with the big two. Elections are expected to be held in May.

Adding to Blair's problems is that a significant number of Labor delegates have publicly said it is time for him to step down to let Gordon Brown, the minister who has overseen Britain's successful economy during Blair's tenure, take over the party.

Monday, Brown delivered a rousing speech to delegates, who responded with a five-minute standing ovation. Delegates seemed to offer more than polite applause for Blair but it would be a stretch to say they were enthusiastic.

"Divided parties don't win elections," said Mark Gill, head of political research at MORI, Britain's largest independent polling organization. "People are saying that, on balance, they like Tony Blair but they don't like his politics."

Polls show that nearly half of Britons think Blair is out of touch with ordinary people, and his approval rating is barely above 30 percent.

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