The agony of victory

Analysis | Tony Blair wins his third election but loses 4 million votes

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

Tony Blair, reelected Britain's prime minister earlier this month, is the third of the pivotal "war on terror" leaders to be returned to office, after Australia's John Howard last October and George W. Bush. This is all said to be proof that the Anglosphere's alliance against terror is strong. Right? Wrong.

Mr. Blair won reelection but lost two-thirds of his parliamentary majority and received just 36 percent of the popular vote. He won because the remainder of voters were split between two main opposition parties and a multitude of fringe parties. The last time that a prime minister received such a small share of the popular vote, Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

The Iraq war was an important factor in Mr. Blair's reduced popularity. His Labor Party won 13.5 million votes in 1997. But on May 5, 4 million of those voters deserted him. The war was only the second most unpopular factor in Britain's election: George W. Bush is even more disliked.

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Both opposition parties, the anti-war Liberal Democrats and the pro-war Conservatives, sought to exploit President Bush's unpopularity. The Liberal Democrats postered the nation with images of Blair and Bush standing next to each other with the slogan, "Never Again." A Conservative Party broadcast urged voters to "wipe the grin off Blair's face" as slow-motion images of a smiling Blair and Bush passed across the screen.

The general British view of Mr. Bush is not only uncharitable but is endangering the U.S.-U.K. relationship.

With regard to the immediate challenge-Iraq-there is no likelihood that Mr. Blair will cut and run. Britain's 10,000 troop deployment will continue. The real problem is that the public's willingness to shoulder any more international burdens is exhausted. The British electorate obsessed over the minutiae of the road to war but ignored the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, for example. Like much of Europe, Brits have decided that a war can only be legitimate when authorized by the UN. Respect for the UN is almost creedal in Tony Blair's Labor Party. That is why Blair encouraged America down the UN route.

It is almost inconceivable that Labor members of Parliament would allow their leader to embark on another foreign adventure without UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's approval. Mr. Blair's much reduced parliamentary majority means that he now has to heed the quislings of international legalism.

Moreover, Mr. Blair may be leaving Downing Street very soon. Although he styles himself as Britain's president, Mr. Blair does not have the constitutional security of presidential status. The Labor MPs can deselect him at any time. Many already clamor for him to go.

If that should happen, Mr. Blair will almost certainly be replaced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Mr. Brown is much more of an old-fashioned Laborite-responsible for the 66 extra taxes that burden the increasingly fragile British economy. Motorists now pay $7 a gallon for gasoline. Mr. Brown, who reportedly has a poor relationship with Mr. Blair, could be elected Labor leader on the understanding that he would tilt the Labor project leftwards and away from America.

Mr. Bush may find himself to blame for thinking that America's special relationship depends on Mr. Blair. The White House has worked to protect Mr. Blair and shunned the opposition Conservative Party. But the rejuvenation of Conservatives, the party of Margaret Thatcher, may be his best hope.

Although Conservatives have shamefully sought to exploit the Iraq campaign's difficulties, they remain the principal party of national security. In contrast to Labor, the vast majority of Conservative MPs voted for the Iraq war. Without that support, Mr. Blair would not have secured parliamentary passage of the Iraq war motion.

Now, Britain under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown could become no longer useful to the war on terror. It will be at least four years until Britain elects another government that understands the existential threat that contemporary terrorism poses.

-Tim Montgomerie is editor of www.conservativehome.com.


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