Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

After tasting a bitter victory, Blair now has to face the future

A disheartened prime minister, shaken by public hostility toward him during the election campaign, now faces a number of very difficult decisions

By Patrick Wintour and Ewen Macaskill

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been shocked by the personal hostility shown towards him during the election campaign and is doubtful that he can win back the trust of the British people, some of his closest political colleagues admit.

They believe his mood, which will in part be affected by the size of Labour's majority, will add to the sense that power is leaving the prime minister and shifting toward Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. One solace is that his relationship with Brown is now at its best for many years.

Earlier this year, Blair spoke of his difficult relationship with the British public but expressed optimism that it could be mended.

After a month in which he has been harangued about Iraq on the street, in TV studios and countless interviews, as well as branded a liar, not just by the leader of the opposition, but also by ordinary members of the public, those close to him said the criticism had struck home.

Some say he has recognized that he is unlikely to recover popularity.

"For a man who likes to be liked, this is difficult," said one friend. "It has been a very tough campaign. The backdrop of attacks from the families of servicemen was grim."

Plans during the election campaign to make the moral case for "New Labour," or to set out a clear vision of a third term in the public services, became muffled by the need to drive so hard on the economy.

Blair had also planned to make a "visionary" foreign policy speech during the campaign setting out the case for his interventionist policy on weapons of mass destruction, international interventionism and the government's G8 agenda. But the speech was shelved at the insistence of his campaign team.

He was told, and has himself now admitted, that he is not able to persuade anyone one way or the other about his Iraq venture. By the end of the campaign, his passionate defense of the invasion had gone, and he was reduced to saying he had made an honest decision that he believed to be right at the time.

His colleagues say he has been personally hurt that so many people believe he took the country to war on a lie, pointing out that four separate inquiries had found no clear evidence of him deliberately misleading the public.

Blair's allies say his current mood -- not dissimilar to the state of mind that nearly prompted his resignation a year ago -- is unlikely to lift quickly.

Disheartened though he may be, the prime minister will have a raft of pressing issues facing him. The most pressing will be the reshuffle of his government but the more important ones will be those barely mentioned in the election campaign: pensions, nuclear power, council tax (local property taxes), defense and Europe.

Blair will have to consider these against a background of media speculation about when he will stand down. One minister predicted he would stay at Downing Street for a "respectable" period, about two years and maybe even three, before handing over.

Blair said on Wednesday that he wanted a third term mainly to make progress on social justice. He told reporters: "What moves me is very simple. We have made tremendous progress but there are still far too many children that do not get the right breaks, still far too many people that do not get the healthcare they need, far too many hard-working families that do not get support they depend on."

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