The British parliament returns from its summer recess Tuesday with Prime Minister Tony Blair gunning for victory in a general election next year -- so long as Iraq doesn't come back to haunt him.
Blair is widely expected to call the nation to the polls in the first half of next year, with opinion polls pointing to an unprecedented third consecutive mandate for his Labour party, albeit perhaps with a reduced majority.
The House of Commons and the House of Lords resume sitting tomorrow, with Blair's weekly question period -- a lively half-hour exchange of verbal blows with the opposition -- on Wednesday.
With bitter squabbling over his decision to take Britain into the Iraq War largely behind him, Blair intends to keep the spotlight firmly on domestic issues in the new political season.
"The key to renewing our political support for the coming years is policy," Blair told Labour party workers in London this past week, ahead of the party's morale-boosting annual conference at the end of this month.
"We must set out ... a compelling modern prospectus for the country to make it stronger, fairer and more prosperous," he said.
Indeed, an opinion poll for the Guardian newspaper last month found health care, education and crime to be foremost on the minds of British voters -- with Iraq trailing in 10th place.
Nevertheless, Iraq could re-emerge as an awkward issue at any time, putting pressure on Blair's popularity rating and reviving his image as a "poodle" to US President George W. Bush.
Significantly, Blair is saying nothing about the US presidential elections, and is putting off a trip to Washington to collect a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to him last year for being such a staunch ally of America.
John Rentoul, political columnist for the Independent on Sunday newspaper and a biographer of Blair, said Iraq was liable to be a "real danger ... if British troops start taking serious casualties".
Sixty-four British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion, compared to more than 725 for US forces, and the 8,000 British troops in southern Iraq have faced relatively little insurgent unrest.
"Otherwise, the Iraq factor is already in the political market. People have made up their minds on Iraq. I don't think anything, unless it goes really seriously wrong [in Iraq], is going to shift much public opinion."
In its most recent poll, released in mid-August, the MORI public opinion institute found that 36 percent of decided voters planned favored Labour, ahead of 32 percent for the main opposition Conservatives.
That might not seem like much of a lead, but it has been consistent for many months, and MORI chief executive Brian Gosschalk doubted that the Tories at this late stage would be able to catch up.
"I don't think Iraq is going to be a vote-winner or loser on the scale that it might have been," Gosschalk told reporters.
"Having said that, of course, there is still the chance that Britain might have won the war, but might lose the peace," he said. "He [Blair] is still not in the clear."
Both Gosschalk and Rentoul forecast Labour winning a third term -- something it has never achieved in its history -- though perhaps not with the 167-seat majority that it captured in May 2001.