Fri, Jan 30, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Blair still rides his political luck

TEFLON TONY Despite his `no dirt will stick' reputation and surviving an onslaught in parliament this week, Tony Blair may have bitten off more than he can chew

REUTERS , LONDON

A protester wears a mask of British Prime Minister Tony Blair outside the Royal Courts of Justice as the Hutton report into the death of government weapons expert David Kelly is published, in London on Wednesday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

British Prime Minister Tony Blair long ago lost the youthful optimism of his first runaway election victory, yet survival of a rollercoaster week shows he still knows how to ride his luck.

"He's an extraordinarily fortunate prime minister. Maybe it's because he prays a lot!" said analyst Anthony Seldon after Blair's knife-edge victory in a key parliamentary vote and exoneration by a judge probing the suicide of an Iraq expert.

Blair has confounded doom-mongers who predicted the twin threats converging this week, in a crazy 24 hours of high political drama, could have toppled him.

But he will need plenty more political luck -- or divine help -- to face a future fraught with problems as his ruling Labour Party rebels against his social reform policies and Britons stay dubious over his reasons for the Iraq war.

He also has the brooding presence of his powerful finance minister and rumored rival Gordon Brown to contend with.

Brown helped Blair scrape through Tuesday evening's education vote by just five "ayes," but some think that just cleverly enhanced his credentials to take over from the boss.

The embarrassing reduction of Blair's 161-seat parliamentary majority, in the most serious revolt he has faced to a core domestic policy, has thrown into doubt his entire social reform policy, which Labour traditionalists see as too free-market.

Further readings of the education bill, plus upcoming legislation on asylum and parliamentary reform, are now in doubt as Blair will be forced to consult rebels more closely.

On the Iraq issues bedeviling him for more than a year, a judge cleared Blair on Wednesday of blame for the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly in a report that could have sunk him had the prime minister been personally censured.

But the wider issue of Britons' distrust with Blair's case for war, and particularly his allegations over Saddam Hussein's banned weapons, remains an open political sore.

With none of the banned weapons Blair claimed Saddam had primed for use yet found, many in his war-wary party will never forgive him for convincing them military action was necessary.

"The prime minister led us into a complete disaster. He is either a fool or a knave, either incompetent or a liar -- and who is being hanged today? The BBC and Andrew Gilligan," anti-war legislator George Galloway said.

While judge Lord Hutton cleared Blair, he strongly rapped the BBC and its reporter Gilligan for their role in the Kelly affair.

Blair, looking feisty and relieved in parliament, said Hutton's report vindicated him and proved accusations that he had misled the nation and parliament were "the real lie."

But his principal accuser, opposition Conservative leader Michael Howard, said the saga over Kelly's suicide -- apparently unable to cope with the pressure and depressed by the outing of his name -- reflected badly on Blair.

"The nation will in due course deliver its verdict," he said, referring to the next general election expected next year.

Most analysts expect Blair to win that, but not with the same unassailable lead as in the past. And the jury is out on whether this week's survival act will ultimately strengthen Blair or make him, in his foes' words, a "dead man walking."

"Blood has been let and anger has been satisfied," Seldon said. "It could be the opportunity for a big new reorientation and relaunching of the second term. Or it could turn out to be the turning point in the second term where the party has shown that they're simply not going to buy his agenda."

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