BELFAST, North Ireland - British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stood fast with the United States in the Iraq war, is suffering a sharp decline in poll numbers and support among some of his own government ministers.
Sounding Churchillian in his pro-war statements, Blair is now experiencing the kind of drop in public opinion that affected Winston Churchill's political future following World War II (and the first President Bush following the Persian Gulf War).
Last week, Blair reshuffled his cabinet in an effort to turn things around. One Tory Member of Parliament told me that Blair is beginning to suffer from "Margaret Thatcher syndrome," suggesting that, like Thatcher, Blair has stayed too long on the political stage and people are growing tired of him.
An indication of how serious things may be for Blair comes in two polls commissioned by the Times of London. One shows that one-third of the British people no longer trust Blair as a result of the way he handled the Iraq War. The peculiar thing is that the poll also shows a huge majority still believe that military action was justified.
Part of this double-mindedness can be blamed on the British media, which have been far more critical of their government than the American media have been toward the Bush administration. The British press openly disbelieves Blair's claim that intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was accurate. It questions whether Blair made it up in order to "drag" Britain into the conflict. While similar questions are being raised in some American media about the role of the CIA and whether President Bush accurately and honestly interpreted intelligence information he got (and whether that information was tailored to support a policy the administration wanted to pursue), the most intense American criticism is mild compared to what the average Brit hears and reads.
The second Times poll published June 17 found that for the first time Conservatives are gaining on Labor. This poll put Conservatives at 33 percent approval, just 4 points behind Labor.
A Times editorial (June 15) noted that while "Mr. Blair is a long way from the turbulent waters that engulfed (former British Prime Minister and Thatcher successor) John Major . there is plainly the risk of a drip-drip-drip effect on the image of his administration."
It isn't just the fallout from the Iraq War that concerns the Blair team (most Brits still believe Saddam Hussein did possess weapons of mass destruction), it's a lot of other things coming all at once. The National Health Service remains in need of reform as complaints about long waits for treatment and poor service at many hospitals continue.
There is also a continuing debate about the euro. Blair and his economic team had promised a rather quick decision on whether Britain should dump the pound sterling and tie its economic future to the euro. Now, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has delayed a decision until a possible referendum next year. At a news conference, Blair acknowledged that he faced a political battle to overturn widespread public antagonism toward closer relations with Europe. According to the YouGov poll, a strong majority (61 percent) of the public would vote against the euro were a referendum held now. That's up from 51 percent opposition a year ago.
Worse, for Blair, the poll reveals 55 percent would trust Gordon Brown to tell them if, or when, the time is right for Britain to shift to euro, while just 12 percent would trust Blair's judgment on the matter.
All of this turmoil for Blair has Conservatives salivating. The leader of the Conservative Party, Iain (cq) Duncan Smith, seems to have gained new confidence as Blair's troubles have escalated. Smith's debating points are rammed home with more assurance during the weekly "Prime Minister's Question Time," and he smiles more often than in recent memory.
Blair may be in some political difficulty, but he is a politician of considerable talent. The British people don't like political infighting, and since the Thatcher days, infighting has been the chief characteristic of the Tories. If those conservatives can get their act together and if the members of the Labor Party continue to cannibalize each other, the Tory Party could have its first chance at power in more than a decade.