Britain is today a land of political intrigue of the highest, or perhaps lowest, order; its foreign policy is in turmoil and the historic "special relationship" with the United States under threat; its domestic infrastructure is besieged by incompetence and starved of funding; and it is within months of getting a new political leader. Welcome to the crumbling political world of Prime Minister Tony Blair, yesterday's hope for the future about to become tomorrow's despair of the past.
When he first came to power at 10 Downing Street, the youthful-faced new premier with the fluent line in patter and a host of promises of great things to come was hailed as a great breath of political fresh air to cleanse the halls of power of the accusations of sleaze and corruption that had battered the government of his prime ministerial predecessor, John Major, into crushing submission at the polls.
Now, nine years on, Tony Blair's face is lined, his hair graying and receding with the trials and tribulations of leadership that have piled up, to send his own political career hurtling toward the rocks. Blair has announced, only after considerable peer pressure and not particularly willingly, that he will quit as prime minister sometime within the next year. That day is expected to come rather sooner than later, perhaps around the May 1, 2007, date that would mark his 10th anniversary in office.
His domestic woes appear to mount by the day-a National Health Service that is more than 500 million pounds (nearly $1 billion) in debt and has been forced to close scores of hospital departments; a rail transportation system that has been described by one of his own cabinet ministers as "the worst in Europe;" and immigration that has seen hundreds of thousands of illegal foreigners land on the nation's shore, many never to leave.
But the major blow that has sparked Tony Blair's imminent departure as prime minister is his perceived failure on the foreign policy front. That is anchored in his unwavering support for the United States in the U.S.-led Iraq conflict (and, increasingly of late, Britain's involvement in Afghanistan), and the growing perception in the minds of rivals and the voting public at large that on the world stage, he is George W. Bush's "poodle," being dragged around on a lead and obeying the U.S. president's every command, particularly involving military entanglements.
That unedifying image was heightened in no small measure at a recent summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, when President Bush hailed the British prime minister with the words, "Yo, Blair"-a humiliation and an insult, in the eyes of many Britons.
Recent opinion polls have played a key role in Blair's downfall. The British Broadcasting Corp. in early September, showed 55 percent of those interviewed thought the British government had become too closely aligned with Washington's foreign policy, half believed Britain should get out of Iraq forthwith, and 52 percent wanted Britain out of Afghanistan, where the British body count has risen sharply in recent weeks. Some 56 percent believed the United States, Britain and other Western governments were losing the battle to shut down global terrorism.
Meanwhile, back home, Britain's Muslim population has swollen to 1.8 million, a significant portion of them angry and disenchanted over Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Some have turned to violence-four Muslim suicide bombers attacked the London rail and bus system in the summer of 2005, killing 52 commuters, and more than two dozen young Muslims were arrested in August 2006 in an alleged plot to use liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 airliners flying between New York and London.
Blair is clearly losing stature on the international front. Amid the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Washington appears largely to have ignored any potential British diplomatic contribution to resolving the issue. For his part, Blair backed off condemning Israel as well as Hezbollah for the fighting-and when the prime minister visited that beleaguered country after the shooting died down, he became the target of angry shouts of "Blair, you're not welcome in Lebanon," and placards reading "Blair, get out and go home."
A major impact of the combined effect of Blair's performance at international level appear almost sure to be felt on the Anglo-American "special relationship"- the unique tie that came to the fore more than half a century ago in the war against Hitlerism and Nazi Germany. But it is a relationship that has of recent become badly frayed, in the minds of both the British public and Blair's political opponents.
One who has seized the opportunity is David Cameron, leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, and the man tipped by many opinion polls to become prime minister at Britain's next general election, which must be held by 2010. Cameron immediately targeted the "special relationship" issue in a key foreign policy speech in Washington in early September:
"We have never, until recently, been uncritical of America… I worry that we have recently lost the art. I fear that if we continue as at present, we may combine the maximum of exposure with the minimum of real influence." And, tellingly: "The sooner we rediscover the right balance, the better for Britain and our alliance."
Cameron appeared ready to put more water between London and Washington in the transatlantic alliance. Britain, he said, should be "solid, not slavish" in its friendship with the United States. "We will serve neither our own, nor America's, nor the world's interests if we are seen as America's unconditional associate in every endeavor."
Between now and that next election, Britain will definitely have a new prime minister, and the odds-on favorite to grasp that nettle is Blair's fellow Labor government minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Although Blair will then be gone, the remnants of Blairism will remain to haunt Brown, or other successor. As Times of London political analyst Anatole Kaletsky observes, the new prime minister will immediately face a quandary: "If (Brown) sticks to Mr. Blair's foreign policies, he will lose the next election. If he can present a credible alternative, then he could easily win…"
The "credible alternative" that Gordon Brown (or whoever) will have to mold in order to be acceptable to British voters will almost certainly involve a modification of the "special relationship"-toward a more at-arm's-length, independent stance that Washington, also almost certainly, will not welcome.
Al Webb is a freelance journalist based in Britain and a veteran foreign correspondent. He served as chief Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, for US News & World Report magazine and with United Press International as a combat correspondent in Vietnam, bureau manager at United Nations headquarters in New York, chief Middle East correspondent based in Beirut, news editor based in Hong Kong for the Asian Division, and news editor for European-Middle East-Africa Division based in London.