Blair Strikes Back
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Over the last 24 hours, Britain has experienced one of the most gripping pieces of political drama in its recent history. A knife-edge parliamentary vote on a key policy and the release of a potentially damaging inquiry report meant that Prime Minister Tony Blair had two razor-sharp swords of Damocles hanging over his head within the space of a one-day period. The odds of him coming through the ordeal unscathed were slim. The fact that he not only survived these grueling trials intact, but actually managed to emerge from them considerably strengthened is an astonishing testimony to his formidable political skills. Whether you agree with his policies or not, after today's amazing performance it is difficult to deny that Blair has once again proved that he is one of the world's most gifted statesmen.
The 24-hour saga started with a parliamentary vote on the contentious issue of university fees, a subject which has seriously split Blair's Labour Party. Blair's political standing within his own party, and amongst the British public, has been greatly diminished by his support for the domestically unpopular US-led invasion of Iraq. The university fees vote became the focus for discontented Labour lawmakers to vent their anger at Blair over Iraq. Thus, while Blair's government should normally enjoy a 161 seat majority, discontent over the war led many in his party to rebel against him.
Before the vote, Blair stated that his authority was on the line over the university fees issue. If he lost the poll, his position would be considerably weakened and he might well have to resign. Just prior to the count, the situation was so close that it was impossible to predict the outcome. Then, shortly before the ballot, Blair managed to persuade a few of the rebels to switch sides. This last minute development just saved his skin and the bill scrapped passed by 316 to 311 votes. Blair's 161 majority was reduced to a mere five. While Blair could claim victory, his authority seemed weakened. Yet, he would need all his strength 17 hours later when Lord Hutton was due to deliver his report into the suicide of a government scientist.
Last July, Lord Hutton, a retired judge, was asked to head an inquiry into why Dr. David Kelley, a government scientist, had committed suicide after it was revealed that he was the source for a controversial British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news story. A BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, claimed that the government had inserted information that it knew to be false into a document to exaggerate the case for war with Iraq. Besides the allegation that Blair overstated the case for war, it was also claimed that he had been involved in the leaking of Dr. Kelley's name to press, something which is believed to have contributed to his suicide.
The media was predicting that both the government and the BBC would be criticized in the report. The opposition Conservatives were hoping the findings would damage Blair enough to force him to resign. However, once Lord Hutton began to deliver his lengthy 700-page findings, it started to become clear that the government had been completely cleared of any wrong doing and that it was the BBC which solely received the full weight of criticism. By the time Lord Hutton's one-hour-and-twenty-minute presentation had finished, Blair and his colleagues were completely exonerated.
Immediately after the delivery of the report, Blair gave an impressive performance to parliament vigorously defending his premiership. He used the report to totally vindicate his position and then launched a devastating attacked on the opposition Conservatives. With absolutely no criticism of Blair in the report, his adversaries had no ammunition to fire and crumbled in the face of Blair's powerful onslaught.
The prime minister gave a spectacular display of his truly phenomenal leadership qualities. By the time the session ended, he had restored his reputation as the dominant force in British politics. It was an amazing and totally unexpected result. Like an Indiana Jones movie, Blair had somehow beaten seemingly impossible odds to snatch an amazing victory. While many problems lie ahead on the horizon, especially the failure to find any weapons of massive destruction in Iraq, Blair's fortunes are now in the ascendancy. Today has most certainly earned him a place in the history books.
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Blair's Premiership in Danger over Iraq
Europe Report #60, 20 October 2003
Confident Koizumi Outshines Browbeaten Blair
Asia Times, 23 July 2003
Bush Heads for Controversial London Visit
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Blair's Political Future Looking Dark as Koizumi's Shines
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Koizumi Haunted by Blair's Iraq Dilemma
Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 17 February 2003
Hutton Report in Full and Hutton Report Conclusions