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.


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