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Analysis: Blair is stronger than he looks

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent   |   March 13, 2003 at 3:26 PM
WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) -- To understand why Tony Blair's political future may not be doomed, start with the fact that British voters like a fighter, and traditionally they have backed a fighter who sticks to his guns. The same instincts that rallied behind Winston Churchill in 1940 and behind Margaret Thatcher in 1992 are starting to come to Blair's aid today.

Moreover, Blair is making the case that the current United Nations Security Council is not so much the home of wisdom and international legitimacy as the scene of a cynical French power play. And while accepting that they run a delightful country and make splendid wines, the British in general are no great fans of their neighbors across the Channel.

French President Jacques Chirac is routinely dubbed "The Worm" in Britain's top-selling daily, The Sun. And all of the doubts about too close a connection with Europe that have held Britain back from joining the euro currency are coming into play. The French, Blair told Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan-Smith Thursday, are being "completely intransigent." Blair's official spokesman went further, saying the French had "poisoned" the diplomatic atmosphere.

After months of plunging ratings, that left his New Labor government barely ahead of the dispirited Conservative opposition, the polls have bottomed out, and are beginning to shift towards Blair. Last month, just 11 percent told pollsters that Britain should wage war against Iraq without the backing of a second U.N. resolution. Last week, 19 percent said that. This week 26 percent said they would support a war without the U.N. And with a new resolution, 71 percent would support military action with only 22 percent still opposed.

Blair faces real problems. A quarter of his members of Parliament, 121 of them, voted against their government over Iraq two weeks ago. One Cabinet minister, Clare Short, having attacked her leader as "reckless," is pledged to resign if Blair goes to war without the United Nations. Another, former Foreign Minister Robin Cook is reliably said to be "considering his position." A handful of MPs has talked of starting the process of launching a leadership election.

This is less serious than it sounds. Clare Short, development minister, resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over the last Gulf War, represents the bleeding-heart wing of the party, and is widely felt, in that classic British euphemism, to be "a sandwich or two short of a picnic." And after a hideously messy divorce that saw him eventually marry a much younger aide, Cook still suffers from his wife's account of his drinking himself regularly into a stupor, and falling asleep with an empty bottle rolling at his side.

Even the rebels know their limits. Tony Banks, a populist type and former sports minister who voted against his government in the revolt two weeks ago, says, "It's very difficult to get rid of a leader of the Labor party. I've found no widespread indication within the parliamentary Labor party or in the party around the country that there would be a move to get rid of Blair. People have not come round to thinking like that yet."

Another rebel MP, Martin Salter, puts it this way: "Even among those who have fundamental problems with the government's policy towards Iraq, there is a grudging and genuine respect for his manifest personal convictions on the issue, and for persuading America to put the issue to the U.N. These people talking about getting rid of Blair are the usual suspects. I have spoken to a number on the hard left who believe that it has been a tactical mistake to personalize the issue. Just because we don't agree with the prime minister on this, it doesn't mean we should get rid of him."

Even loyal conservatives are worried about the results of toppling Blair. Former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings, writing in the latest Spectator, warns that Blair would almost certainly be replaced by his more left-wing finance minister Gordon Brown, a dour Scot who likes Big Government. And certainly until Brown shows himself ready for a challenge, there is no credible alternative to Blair -- at least while hostilities threaten and British voters and the British press rally instinctively to "support our boys in the Gulf."

If the war goes well, the British troops are welcomed as liberators and Saddam Hussein's evil weapons are unearthed, Blair will be vindicated -- and it will be payback time in British politics. If it all goes wrong, Blair will face mass demonstrations, some protest strikes, and a firm challenge to his leadership at the proper time and place -- the Labor Party conference in October. If there is a disaster, he may even resign before then -- and this time with no golden parachute into a plum European job. The French would veto that, too.

But for the moment, and not least because his brave and uncompromising performance at prime minister's question time in Parliament Wednesday, and because he has persuaded President Bush to keep trying diplomacy for a few days longer, his position is stronger than it may look. Having looked briefly into the abyss called Life After Tony, the Labor Party thinks that might be an even worse place to be than Iraq.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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