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Tony Blair To Face Party Critics

For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sunday’s annual Labor Party conference at Bournemouth will prove a difficult test. In the wake of the Iraq war and Kelly affair, he faces stiff criticism from within his own ranks.


After blistering criticism from the media and the Hutton Inquiry, Tony Blair must now address critics in his own party.

These days, British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems to be under fire from all sides. But the most drastic accusation against Blair has came from the family of David Kelly, who have blamed the prime minister for the former government weapons expert’s suicide death.

But that’s only the beginning. The Labor Party chief has been accused of "sexing up" intelligence information and having pushed his country into an unjustified war by presenting an overly dramatic report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After the BBC picked up the story, critics say, Kelly became a pawn of the government in its very public and very bitter battle against the public broadcaster, which had been a staunch critic of Blair’s justification for war. In the end, they argued, it pushed Kelly over the edge. There have also been political casualties on both sides -- with a resignation at 10 Downing Street and an admission by the BBC that it made serious reporting errors in its coverage of the dossier.

Instead of falling prey to these political setbacks, Blair has gone on the offensive in the lead-up to this week’s Labor Party conference. In an interview with BBC Breakfast Television this weekend, Blair said he wouldn’t have done anything differently vis-a-vis Iraq.

"Nothing. I would have done exactly the same," he said. "We did the right thing in removing Saddam Hussein. The world is a safer place without him. His country has got the prospect now of building a stable and prosperous democracy, which will have a huge impact on the whole of the Middle East."

Blair also said he would seek to serve a third term as Britain’s premier.

Sinking popularity

Yet, the prime minister faces tough criticism not only within his own party, but also among the broader public. When Blair became British prime minister six years ago, his approval rating was among his greatest strengths. Today, a mere 30 percent of Britons still approve of their premier’s performance according to the most recent public opinion polls. And, for the first time, a majority of Britons say they believe the decision to go to war against Iraq was a mistake.

The downturn in public opinion has already had a harmful impact on the Labor Party’s standing. In the traditionally Labor district of Brent East in London, the party recently lost to the Liberal Democratic candidate – an electoral black-eye that has thrown the party ever deeper into crisis.

The London-based Independent newspaper blamed the Blair government's recent fall on its "fixation" on the media. The paper even accused Blair’s former communications director, Alistair Campbell, of breeding an environment where opinion pages played a more important role in policy-making than content or proposals. More than a few could be heard celebrating when Campbell announced his resignation in the wake of the Kelly scandal in August. To them, it marked a return to the politics of substance.

Speech to appeal to party base

In the lead up to Blair’s appearance at the party conference on Tuesday, the discussion among the chattering classes in Britain mostly involves "The Speech." For on Tuesday, Blair will seek to win over his party colleagues once again. For weeks now, Blair has been carefully drafting the speech on his own, calling on his most-trusted circle of advisors to present him with worst-case scenarios. Blair’s intention is to push domestic issues back to the center of discourse, deflecting attention from growing discontent over the situation in Iraq.

The prime minister has already been hammered with plenty of advice, and not always of the variety he’d prefer. The Guardian complained that Blair "lacks an ideology." The government "has been unable to define what it was doing and what it was for," the paper wrote. In an editorial in the same paper, former Blair Health Secretary Alan Milburn wrote: "The public wants to know where we are taking our country."

The end of the third way?

Without making significant changes, it will be difficult for Blair to subdue the resentment within the Labor Party ranks. Blair’s "Third Way" approach to politics, which helped lead him to two triumphant electoral victories in 1997 and 2001 won’t be sufficient any longer because, now, workers and unions have come to the realization that his repeated victories are no longer a certainy. In fact, some backbenchers in parliament are already worried that the prime minister’s baggage could hurt their own reelection chances.

At the same time, the desire for the party to return to the issue traditionally attributed to it are also growing. According to Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, "about half the party" would prefer to see a new chairman to replace Blair at the party’s helm. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is considered the most promising candidate for that slot, if it comes to a change.

Still, the chances of any major tide change are slim this week. Though Blair’s star is clearly sinking, few believe any heads will roll at this week’s party conference.

Judgement day is likely to come in two years, when Britons next take to the polls for national elections. Blair’s chances for reelection in 2005 appear to be seriously jeopardized. But there are still considerable variables that could play in his favor.

Ironically, the government’s savior could be the opposition. The Liberal Democrats must still establish themselves as a viable alternative to Britain’s traditional two-party system – and the Conservatives don’t even have a strong enough candidate to formidably face off against even a seriously diminished Blair.

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