Politics & Policy

Blair’s Summer of Discontent

The uncertainty ahead.

On Thursday, Tony Blair will stand before a large audience of legislators, receive a high civil honor, and make a speech that will be warmly received. The only problem is that he does so in the U.S. Capitol, not the Palace of Westminster. America’s best friend in Europe has had a bad spring, is enduring an ever-worsening summer, and probably will have an even rougher ride this fall. So rough, in fact, that by Christmas, he might not be prime minister.

Americans should be concerned about this because Blair is not being honored this week for his domestic policy, but for his staunchly pro-American foreign policy. And, there is no way of telling if a post-Blair Britain would adhere to it.

There are many indications that Tony Blair is running out of gas. He has been hammered by allegations that intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was cooked. And the zest with which some Labour backbenchers — especially former Cabinet ministers Robin Cook and Clare Short — have taken up the job belies Blair’s claim that Labour’s deep internal split over Iraq is healed. A BBC story in late June indicated that British intelligence believes that Iraqi chemical, nuclear, and biological-weapons “programs” might be found, but doubts that any weapons will be. Blair’s response: attack the BBC. Not a wise move, considering that a recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Britons believe that the government “cannot be trusted” and 66 percent believe the government is “not honest” (in 2001, that number was a mere 30 percent).

The much-anticipated decision about adopting the euro boiled down to a decision not to decide. Despite intense criticism, Blair is pressing ahead with legal reforms — to include the abolition of the centuries-old office of Lord Chancellor and restrictions on trial by jury — not because the British jurisprudence is collapsing, but, apparently, because he views many of the fusty traditions associated with it as being at odds with the modern, meritocratic, social democratic state he wishes to establish in Britain.

Labour has a huge majority in Commons, but that no longer is enough to ensure Blair’s legislative success. This spring, efforts to reform of the House of Lords ended in farce. Blair bungled anti-foxhunting legislation, ultimately surrendering to those Labour MPs for whom a class war is the only war worth fighting. Some relatively minor reforms of the bloated and inefficient National Health Service passed by only 15 votes, a majority ensured only by Blair’s threat to table a no-confidence motion if the reforms were rejected. Even the normally docile House of Lords routinely challenges the government and promises to become even feistier.

Blair’s troubles have damaged Labour’s standing with the public. In late June, an opinion poll showed that, for only the second time since 1992, Conservatives are more popular than Labour. True, they command only a plurality — 35 percent to Labour’s 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats’ 21 percent — but the figures hearten Tories who had resigned themselves to decades in the wilderness. They also anger a growing number of Labour MPs who see Blair as the man who might cost them the next election.

Blair has gone on the offensive, warning his party that his policies represent the only way to keep the Tories out of government and save Britain from an apocalypse. He’s hanging tough, but it’s easy to imagine one more rebuff sending him into voluntary retirement or sparking the rebellion that would oust him from office.

Should Blair leave office, the odds-on favorite to succeed him is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Brown has shown his stripes on domestic policy; he is not shy about hiking taxes and spending money and, like his boss, he has an apparent distaste for anything that is not modern. On foreign policy, however, he is an enigma. Like Blair, Brown came up in Labour party during the 1980s and 1990s, when Labour embraced all sorts of goofy foreign and defense policies. But, as Blair has proved, past performance is no guarantee of future behavior. Brown has promoted ambitious programs to aid the developing world, to include debt relief, and supports Britain’s adoption of the euro. His concerns otherwise seem to stop at the water’s edge. Even on the Iraq war, Brown remained largely tight-lipped.

Brown’s silence should not be taken as support for Blair’s foreign policies. He and Blair have been rivals since the early 1990s and many claim that Blair yearns for any excuse to rid himself of Brown. For his part, Brown is determined never to provide Blair any such excuse. More than likely, his silence is an act of self-preservation.

As fractious as it is, Labour’s commanding 164-seat majority means that only a complete collapse in the next general election would force it out of power. Absent such a collapse, Brown could be setting British foreign policy for some time, raising significant concerns for American policymakers. Does he view the “special relationship” as the centerpiece of British foreign policy? Would he follow Blair’s policy of trying to maintain Britain as the “bridge” between Europe and the United States? Or would he break with Washington and sign on to the Franco-German effort to establish the European Union as a counterweight to American power? Unless and until Gordon Brown starts talking about British foreign policy (again, something that might cost him his current job), we cannot know.

What we do know is that Tony Blair is precariously clinging to power, and he may be moving out of 10 Downing Street before Christmas, potentially resulting in a dramatic shift in British foreign policy. Given Britain’s importance in the war against terrorism, those who today applaud our good friend need to start thinking about where the British ship of state might head if he is not at the helm — and what that might mean for the United States.

Scott Belliveau is the director of communications for the VMI Foundation and adjunct instructor in political science at the Virginia Military Institute.

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