Tony Blair went into this week’s annual Labor Party conference with his personal stock at an all-time low. Fifty per cent of voters recently told pollsters the prime minister should step aside in favor of new leader, and many in his own party, outraged by the Iraq war, were out to get him. The Financial Times summed it up:
“Mr Blair’s authority was on the line as never before. The decision to go to war in Iraq and policies to extend market principles to public services are deeply unpopular with many in the Labor movement. Public trust in Mr Blair’s government has evaporated over the perceived lack of improvement in health and education and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The official inquiry into the death of David Kelly, the weapons scientist, has exposed the machinations of a government obsessed with presentation.”
Blair has always had a complicated relationship with his party. He may have overhauled Old Labor and returned it to power after two decades in the wilderness, but, for many party members, he betrayed the Labor’s founding socialist principles along the way. Until now Blair has managed to keep a lid on dissent, but his decision to go to war in Iraq, deeply unpopular with the party as with the public at large, has changed the equation; now he looks genuinely vulnerable.
Party member and Iraq war critic, Alice Mahon, spoke for a good-sized portion of the party.
“Our prime minister promised President Bush18 months ago that he would support his war for oil…This disastrous route has made the world a much more dangerous world to live in. We were lied to about the weapons of mass destruction and there is no delicate way of putting it.”
Blair’s close alliance with George Bush, who is widely reviled in Britain, is hurting him. According to a recent poll, the British public thinks Blair is most influenced by George Bush. Fifty-seven percent of respondents thought so, compared with eight percent who thought the public had the most influence on him. Not good.
But Blair, against the odds, made it to the end of the week still in charge. He refused to back down from his pre-war positions. In his main address to the conference he asserted that he made the right decision in joining the U.S. in a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
“Iraq has divided the international community, it has divided the party, the country, families, friends. And I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry. … I ask just one thing: Attack my decision, but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again.”
Blair’s speech won him a seven-minute standing ovation and he won party support for a policy document backing the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.
But the prime minister did take some damage. He lost some important votes to the unions on health and pensions, and the rift between old and new Labor was on full display not least in Blair’s chilly relationship with his No. 2 and heir apparent, Gordon Brown. Union leaders were enjoying their victories. “We’ve shown we can give them a bloody nose,” one said of Blair and his allies.
The British media has been mauling Blair for a while over his domestic policies, but the dissent over Iraq has given the denunciations a new energy (in stark contrast to the U.S. media’s tame criticisms of George Bush.)
As Paul Foot writes in London’s Guardian, the conference didn’t reveal anything new about where Blair’s priorities lie:
“What does all this tell us about the courage of the prime minister? The ‘reforms’ to which he says he is steadfastly pledged are not reforms at all. They are retreats and concessions. He is exceptionally courageous when faced with his own supporters, organised trade unionists, fractious health service patients, troublesome pensioners, rowdy schoolchildren, prisoners or asylum seekers. But as soon as he comes up against private health insurers, university chieftains, generals, intelligence spooks, industrialists, Rupert Murdoch … or the US president and his militaristic administration, Blair the Steadfast is miraculously transformed into Blair the Meek, as pliable as any Labour leader in history….”
James Hardy, political editor of the Daily Mirror was similarly unimpressed:
“Mr Blair ate humble pie at the Labour conference … in a transparent attempt to buy back some popularity. He admitted to mistakes, doubts, too much spin and even promised to shed his lofty style of government. His delivery was low-key and his mood sombre, a textbook display of humility that pressed all the right buttons with the Labour delegates. “But behind the predictably ecstatic applause lurked a weary cynicism … It is up to Mr Blair to prove he means what he says. He cut a forlorn, even slightly vulnerable, figure … The arrogance and cockiness of previous conference speeches were absent. The pressure of the past months was etched into every line of the PM’s face.”