Blair Faces Resignation Threat in January
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
If a week is meant to be a long time in politics, then a year is a lifetime. Such a thought must be crossing the mind of British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he attempts to make sense of his dramatic reversal in fortune. Just one year ago, Blair was the unchallenged master of British politics, who also enjoyed an outstanding international reputation. Today, the man who once seemed to have the golden touch is dangerously hanging on the ropes. While he is not yet down for the count, his premiership is under serious threat and could soon receive two potentially lethal knockout blows. If luck is not on his side, Blair may not survive long into 2004.
The root cause of Blair's spectacular fall from grace can be directly traced to his steadfast support for President George W. Bush's war in Iraq, a policy which was immensely unpopular in Britain. Millions protested in the run-up to the conflict and the subsequent failure to find any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the principle reason for going to war, has completely transformed Blair's standing with the British people.
Since the main military phase of the war ended, Blair's Labour Party has been lagging in the polls, suffering an abysmal by-election loss to an anti-war party in one of their safest seats. No longer is Blair the political colossus he once was, instead he now occupies the realm of the mortal politician. It is in this guise that he must soon face the greatest challenge of his premiership.
The first sword hanging over Blair's head was forged in the fires of controversy surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Blair's keenness to demonstrate that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs led to severe tensions between the Blair administration and some elements in the British intelligence establishment. Blair suffered a string of humiliating disclosures exposing the poor and often suspect quality of the information he presented as justification for going to war with Iraq. Two key government reports came in for particularly harsh media criticism.
The first document became infamous because the bulk of the information it contained was discovered to be mostly over ten-years old and to have been plagiarized wholesale from a Ph.D. thesis available on the internet. This was the same dossier that US secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations as one of his justifications for war.
The second key government report was attacked because it was claimed that the Blair team had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq and that this was against the wishes of some of the experts who compiled the original research. While the government was forced to make a humiliating apology to the former Ph.D. student whose research it stole, it attempted to deflect some of the criticism generated by this fiasco through tracking down the intelligence official who had leaked the damaging allegations about its second report. The government's investigation led to the world-renowned weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly, who was acting as an advisor on Iraq's WMD programmes. Once Dr. Kelly was identified as the source, his name was quickly leaked to the press and within days the scientist had committed suicide.
The tragedy landed the Blair administration in an even worse situation. As a result, the prime minister was forced to set up a public inquiry into the events leading up to Dr. Kelly's death. The investigation was headed by a distinguished judge, Lord Hutton. The Hutton inquiry proved highly damaging for the government and made it seem that people close to Blair may have been partly to blame for Dr. Kelly taking his own life.
Blair's director of communications and closest adviser, Alastair Campbell, was forced to resign during the hearings. On about 12 January, the Hutton report is due to be published. Depending on how critical the findings are on Blair's role in the affair, he may have to resign. His position will only be secure if he is totally cleared of any involvement in the events that contributed towards Dr. Kelly taking his own life.
Blair's second battle is on the domestic front over the issue of university top-up fees. This is a policy that if implemented would mean university students having to pay more towards their education. A large number of his own lawmakers have already signed a petition saying that they will vote against the issue, a move which would kill the policy.
Blair has insisted there will be "absolutely no retreat" on the issue, but his influence over his own party has been greatly weakened by his Iraq troubles. If he loses the vote, his authority will be effectively shattered.
Realizing that he cannot presently win the vote, Blair has postponed it until the end of January after the Hutton report is published. Although he has declined to speculate about whether he would resign if the vote goes against him, Blair has conceded that, "Of course, my authority is on the line."
The premier is hoping that the breathing space postponement gives him will allow time to win over dissenters. However, if Hutton points a damaging finger of blame at him, this policy rebellion could be the final nail in Tony Blair's coffin.
Thus, January will be an absolutely crucial month for Blair, determining the fate of one of modern Britain's most prominent politicians. He knows what is at stake and is steeling himself for the fight of his life. If he is toppled, the international fallout would be considerable. The shockwaves would certainly shake postwar Iraq policy in both the United States and Japan.
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