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Michael Howard

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Tony Blair’s Pyrrhic Victory

6 May 2005

Tony Blair’s Pyrrhic Victory

By Gwynne Dyer

Prime Minister Tony Blair has won a third term for Britain’s Labour Party, a feat only matched in the past century by Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, announced his resignation even before the last of the votes were counted. But Blair will probably not keep his job much longer either.

Howard probably wanted to go. The “dog whistle” strategy devised for the Tories by Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby — making coded appeals to racism and anti-immigrant feeling that would mobilise core Conservative voters, but would be inaudible to swing voters and so wouldn’t drive them away — clearly embarrassed him deeply.

It didn’t work (everybody heard the dog whistle), and it cemented the Tories’ reputation as “the nasty party.” Howard went along with it, but as the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe he must have felt soiled by it, and now he’s off to have a long shower and reclaim his soul. Just one more case of a good man in a bad time. Whereas Tony Blair, to many traditional Labour voters, was a bad man in a good time.

A ruling party’s vote is almost bound to fall by the election that starts its third term in office, but Blair had presided over eight years of unbroken economic growth, lowered unemployment, raised health, education and welfare spending — all without raising taxes significantly. The Labour vote shouldn’t have fallen MUCH. It did.

Labour’s majority in parliament fell by more than half, from 160 to about 66 seats. It’s still a majority, but Blair is fatally wounded nevertheless, for there was only one reason that so many people turned away from Labour, often for the first time in their lives: the invasion of Iraq. Around one-tenth of Labour voters were so incensed by the lies Blair told to justify taking Britain into an illegal war alongside his American partner that they abstained or voted for an anti-war party instead.

Even former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned in protest against Blair’s decision to go to war, won his seat this time only with a much reduced majority. Many people in his constituency, he explained, said that they appreciated his opposition to the war, but still could not bring themselves to vote for him this time because it would mean voting in favour of Blair’s war policy. “If it was like that for me, heaven knows it must have been worse for others,” he added.

It was indeed worse for other Labour MPs, and even those who saved their seats will be acutely conscious of the fact that they won despite Tony Blair, not because of him. Blair still hopes and believes that he can “move on” from the Iraq war and serve a full third term, but he cannot, because it isn’t just about the war any more. He is damaged goods, and it is the Labour party that will move on — from him.

Britain is a very different country from the United States, where George W. Bush, Blair’s partner in crime, also scraped back into office six months ago with a very thin majority of the popular vote. Only about one in four adult Americans voted for Bush, and barely one in five adult Britons actually voted for Blair. (Only two-thirds of Britons voted at all, and only 36 percent of them voted Labour.) But Bush is still safely in office for another four years, whereas Blair is not.

Partly it’s just a difference of systems: American presidents are impossible to remove except by impeachment during their term of office, whereas British prime ministers can fall either by a defeat in parliament or by a revolt among their own party members. But it is also a question of perspective and of sensibility.

In London and the south-east of England, where Labour suffered its worst losses, many people care about international law and were outraged by Blair’s willingness to act outside the law. (Alan Watkins, the dean of Britain’s political columnists, habitually refers to him as “the young war criminal.”) Deeper into the hinterland, that sentiment gives way to sheer distaste for Blair in his role as Bush’s faithful sidekick. And throughout the country there is the perception that he manipulated the truth — lied, in the vernacular — in fabricating the “intelligence” that he used to sell the war. He is no longer trusted to tell the truth.

So Labour as a whole was punished for invading Iraq, and needs to replace Blair as leader relatively soon if it is to have any hope of winning another election. Even that mysterious beast, the establishment, has turned against him: the leaks about the secret advice that Blair received on the legality of invading Iraq that put the war back at the top of the agenda during the election came from near the top of the civil service and the military.

In the meantime, enough anti-war Labour rebels have been re-elected that Blair, with his greatly reduced majority, would have great difficulty in pushing through new laws restricting civil rights, imposing ID cards on British citizens, or confining terrorism suspects without a trial, let alone in following Bush in any further invasions. The Blair era is drawing to a close.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Howard…time”)

Don’t Mention the War

1 May 2005

Don’t Mention the War

By Gwynne Dyer

As sharks respond to blood in the water, so do journalists to panic among politicians — and there is the scent of panic in the air as the British election campaign enters the home stretch. It’s still hard to see how the Conservative opposition could win on 5 May, but there is suddenly a chance that the governing Labour Party could lose its majority in parliament over voter resentment at how Prime Minister Tony Blair dragged the country into war.

Blair almost got away with it. For most of the campaign, he avoided any serious debate on his decision to commit Britain to the invasion of Iraq alongside his friend George W. Bush, and on every other issue he was fireproof. The British economy is among Europe’s healthiest, unemployment is less than half that of France or Germany, and Blair’s government has been pouring money into health and education. Huge numbers of Labour voters felt deceived and betrayed by his Iraq policy, but so long as the war didn’t become a central issue, Labour would cruise safely back into a third term in office.

Then, on 24 April, came the first in a series of well-timed leaks about how Blair tricked his cabinet, his party and the country into believing that the war was legal. All week the media were full of the text of legal opinions previously suppressed by Blair in which his own officials had warned him about the doubtful legality of the war, and retired senior military officers revealed that they had been deeply worried about it, too. The anger that many Labour voters felt about Blair’s deceptions flared up again, and suddenly the election was a horse-race.

Disaffected Labour voters would never give their votes to the Conservatives, whose leader, Michael Howard, had eagerly supported the war — but they might well give them to the third-place Liberal Democrats, the only party that openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. That could turn significant numbers of marginal Labour seats into Lib Dem or even Conservative ones, depending on which opposition party was currently in second place locally. Panic: suddenly Blair was all over the media warning that “It’s Labour versus Tory (Conservative). Anything else is a Tory vote by the black door.”

Even in my own central London constituency, which has been a safe Labour seat since shortly after King Arthur’s time, a hastily printed one-page flyer was hand-delivered to our house on Sunday in which our local Labour MP, Frank Dobson, in effect begged us to ignore Blair and vote Labour anyway. “Many people in Holborn and St Pancras and across the UK think…it’s safe to have a protest vote. Or maybe you plan to vote Labour through gritted teeth. I understand that feeling.”

Stressing that he personally had voted against the invasion of Iraq, Dobson hammered home the message that “A Tory Government is the only alternative (to voting Labour).” Only that isn’t really true, and many habitual Labour voters have figured that out. The British papers are full of cut-out guides to how a tactical vote for the Lib Dems would affect the outcome in each individual constituency, together with the crucial information that almost no amount of anti-Blair tactical voting by Labour supporters could give the Conservatives a majority.

What tactical voting could do, on around a ten percent swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, is to deprive Labour of its majority in parliament. Labour would still be the biggest party, and would be almost certain to form the next government, but it would have to be either a minority government with outside support from a (much bigger) Liberal Democratic contingent in parliament, or even a formal coalition with the Lib Dems.

In either case, it is very unlikely that Tony Blair — “the young war criminal,” as Alan Watkins, the doyen of British political columnists, calls him — would remain prime minister. His own party is full of people who loathe him, and only accept his leadership because he is allegedly a sure-fire election winner, but they would quickly turn and rend him if he stumbles. Besides, any arrangement for informal support or a formal coalition with the Lib Dems would probably require an early decision to dump Blair and pull British troops out of Iraq.

How likely is all this to happen? Not all that probable, really.

The Liberal Democratic leader, Charles Kennedy, has fought a lacklustre campaign, and the Conservatives have failed to stampede the electorate with a campaign that played up to fears of the immigrants and “asylum-seekers” who are allegedly inundating Britain. (“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” as a series of Tory campaign posters coyly put it.)

The Conservatives even imported Lynton Crosby, the Australian electoral guru who recently master-minded the return of Prime Minister John Howard for a third term in Canberra on a platform of thinly disguised racism and xenophobia, to run their campaign in Britain. It hasn’t worked, however, as Britain is a much more ethnically diverse country than Australia: Conservative leader Michael Howard is himself the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine. Tory support has scarcely shifted through the whole campaign.

The only thing that can shift the political landscape in Britain is Labour voters casting tactical votes for Liberal Democratic candidates, and while there will be enough of them to deliver a stinging rebuke to Blair for the war, they will probably not be numerous enough to deprive Labour of its majority.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Liberal…whole campaign”)