Storm clouds build for Blair
British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced growing doubts on Thursday about how long he will last as Britain’s prime minister, even as he vowed to forge ahead with controversial health and education reforms despite a stinging defeat on an anti-terrorism proposal.
Blair rejected notions of his leaving office or that he had lost authority after 49 rebels from his own Labour Party joined the opposition on Wednesday in defeating his plan to let police hold terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without charge.
In fact, Blair went quickly on the counter-attack, branding lawmakers who voted against the measure as “irresponsible”.
However, British newspapers of all persuasions said Blair had lost stature after the vote against the anti-terror measure in the lower House of Commons, his first defeat in Parliament since taking office in 1997.
“The moment Tony Blair lost his authority,” wrote the left-of-centre Independent; “Blair’s blackest day,” said the conservative Daily Telegraph; while the right-leaning Times asked: “Beginning of the end?”.
“After eight years in power, Tony Blair hears a new word: Defeat,” headlined the left-of-centre Guardian, while the tabloid Daily Mirror mused: “Start packing, Cherie?”, referring to the prime minister’s wife.
The Financial Times suggested in a front-page article that Blair had suffered “a devastating blow to his political authority”.
Interior Minister Charles Clarke was one of the few Labour ministers on Thursday seeking to smooth the waters, doing a round of television and radio interviews to explain why the vote failed and defend Blair.
“He’s nothing like the private dictator that he is sometimes portrayed as being,” Clarke insisted.
But criticism about Blair’s methods have resurfaced, particularly following his commitment after the general election to “listen” more after the third term re-election was marked by a cut in his majority.
He is regularly accused of wanting to push through unilateral reforms before he stands down as leader.
Experts emphasised Blair’s resilience on Thursday, pointing out that he had survived a number of crises, including the launching of the war in Iraq. But they questioned his ability to take a series of further punches.
Blair’s desire to push through education and health reforms have caused consternation among the Labour party ranks, with many predicting they could spell the end for the prime minister.
A number of MPs who supported Blair’s 90-day proposal on Wednesday have already let it be known they would not back his education reforms, which favour private-sector involvement.
Michael Bruter, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said Blair seemed to have “restocked his political capital” since his re-election in May, albeit with a smaller parliamentary majority.
“I don’t get the impression that Wednesday’s defeat will hasten his departure, but if he loses another two or three votes, it’ll be a different story,” he added.
“He won’t go easily,” suggested Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick, central England.
“He still thinks he is going to carry on ... He is not finished [even though] he has been through a very bad period,” he added, referring to the recent resignation of David Blunkett as work and pensions secretary.
“It’s the first nail in the coffin,” said Matthew Worley, a professor of history at the University of Reading, of Wednesday’s vote. “Blair can weather the storm, but another one of these defeats and he’s really in trouble.”—Sapa-AFP