Mon, Mar 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Poll shows big credibility gap for Blair

SKEPTICISM A newspaper poll showed that only 14 percent of Britons believe the embattled prime minister had not traded parliamentary posts for political donations

AFP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's credibility is at stake after public opinion polls yesterday exposed a sharp degree of skepticism amongst voters over a political financing scandal.

Fifty-six percent of voters polled by the YouGov organization for the Sunday Times newspaper said they thought that Blair had given peerages in return for donations and loans to his Labor Party.

Only 14 percent believed he had not, according to the poll, published after a stormy week for Blair in which the financing flap dominated the political headlines amid insinuations of sleaze.

The same poll also put Blair's personal approval rating at 36 percent -- its lowest point ever, according to the pollsters.

Peers are members of the House of Lords, the all-appointed upper chamber of the British parliament that plays an influential role in vetting legislation put forward by the government in the elected House of Commons.

In another poll, by ICM for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, seven out of 10 poll respondents said they felt Labor was at least as sleazy as the Conservatives had been when they were trounced by Labor in the 1997 elections.

It remains to be seen how the furore might overshadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's annual budget address on Wednesday, before Blair attends a two-day EU summit in Brussels.

But it has been enough to rattle grassroots Labor activists who fear it will cost the party votes in local council elections on May 4.

The Labor Party conceded on Friday that it had received ?13.95 million (US$24.5 million) in loans from wealthy supporters last year, when Blair steered Labor to a third straight election win.

The loans were made "in full compliance" with political financing rules, which in Britain require donations -- but not loans -- to be publicly disclosed, a Labor Party spokesman said.

In his monthly press conference at his Downing Street residence on Thursday, a clearly embattled Blair strongly denied that any loans to the Labor Party had been improper.

But he revealed that he was considering changes to how nominations to the Lords are conducted -- including a proposal to limit the role of the prime minister in the process.

As part of the shake-up, Blair's spokesman announced on Friday that a former senior civil servant, Sir Hayden Phillips, had been appointed to look at the future of party funding, in liaison with political parties.

Blair has declared that he will resign as prime minister sometime during this term in office, which expires in 2010, making way for Brown -- long regarded as his uncontested heir apparent -- to succeed him.

The notion of Blair standing down sooner rather than later was mooted on Friday by the influential Economist news magazine, which had endorsed Labor's re-election last May.

"Only if he feels absolutely sure that he is capable of driving his health and other reforms through during the next two years should he stay longer," it said in an editorial.

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