- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

LONDON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — He started his administration nearly six years ago vowing to put Britain at the heart of Europe. But Thursday night British Prime Minister Tony Blair was heading for Madrid not to strengthen a relationship with Paris or Berlin but to strengthen Spanish solidarity with a power in the opposite direction — the United States.

After Wednesday night's House of Commons vote, in which he suffered the biggest rebellion from his own party in almost six years of power, Blair has found himself the lonely and vulnerable leader of a left-of center-Labor party whose destiny appears locked in to a right-of-center Republican American president rather than to the vagaries of Euro politics in Brussels he expected.

Technically, Blair now has the support that British parliamentary procedure requires to join President Bush in going to war with Iraq without United Nations authority if necessary. But a surprisingly large mutiny of almost one-third of Labor Party Members of Parliament — despite strong-arm tactics by party whips — means he does not, as yet, have a political mandate to do so.

And with a majority of the public also opposed to his view on Iraq Blair is now regarded as a very vulnerable figure who could be toppled at almost any time.

"The stakes for him personally are, on last night's evidence, now enormous," concluded an editorial in Thursday's right-of-center Times. Agreed the Independent: "Mr. Blair is gambling his own career and the reputation of his government on a venture that many in the country, in his own party and even in his own cabinet doubt is necessary."

There is general agreement that all will change if the U.N. Security Council approves a second resolution authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam. But without it and if a war gets to be messy and drawn out, Blair is seen as unlikely to survive as prime minister.

Already, historical comparisons are being drawn. Anthony Eden's ill health and departure after the debacle of Suez in 1956; Neville Chamberlain after the disastrous campaign to liberate Norway from the Germans in 1940. Then, Chamberlain's government won a vote of confidence in the Commons over Norway, but it was only with a majority of 81, and he handed over to Winston Churchill a few days later.

And, as if Blair didn't already know, the memory of Conservative Premier Margaret Thatcher's demise at the hands of her own party — even as she prepared to fight the first Gulf War in 1990 — was Thursday being flagged as a reminder of what can happen when a leader fails to take his or her party with him even at times of great national crisis.

The Commons powerful debate and vote is widely seen as a victory for the importance of Parliament after years in which the overwhelming political power of the Blair government has reduced it to little more than a rubber stamp. But if the members of Parliament who stood up against Blair believed he would not now dare to take the country to war without Parliament's approval, cabinet member Margaret Beckett was quick to disabuse them.

Ironically calling on the image of Thatcher as Falklands war leader and steely confidant to the first President George Bush, she said Britain's unwritten constitution and a duty to protect the safety of British troops justified the prime minister's right to take military action without returning to Parliament.

"He has the same legitimacy that Winston Churchill had, that Margaret Thatcher had, that John Major had," she said.

But Wednesday's vote was not just about Blair and his policies; it was also about President Bush and American policies. With several opinion polls revealing that a majority of the British public believes Bush to be a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein, dissident members of Parliament have been emboldened to point the finger of blame more across the Atlantic than elsewhere.

A number of reports in Thursday's media drew attention to 'the instinctive anti-Americanism' of left-wingers in the Commons. But rising concern about American heavy-handedness appears to have broken out in all sections of British society, most notably perhaps in the proverbial Middle England, judging from letters to the editor, television talk shows and everyday conversations.

Member of Parliament Kenneth Clarke, a former cabinet member in the last Conservative government, appeared to express a common public view when he stood to oppose both Bair and his own Tory leaders: "I cannot rid myself of the doubts that the course to war was actually decided many months ago, primarily in Washington," he said. "That's why Middle England and a lot of very moderate political opinion have such doubts."

It may not have helped the standing of the U.S. government that the lead photo on the front page of several British newspapers was of a distressed 72-year-old British vacationer just released from prison in South Africa, where he had been held for three weeks at the request of the FBI, which had misidentified him as a wanted fraudster. Neither he nor a number of British commentators were satisfied with an apology from a federal prosecutor in Texas or a reported comment from an FBI spokesman that: "I'm not sure that anything was handled inappropriately."

There is, however, considerable acceptance that things have now gone too far to turn back. For right or wrong, Parliament's vote is seen as an historic moment.

"Though wounded, the Blair government will treat the result as a green light to go along with America's intention to attack Iraq at a moment of its own choosing," said the Guardian. "MPs had a choice, and they made the wrong one. The die has been cast for a war-enabling policy. It is one which Britain may rue for many years to come."

The conservative Daily Mail also took the "die is cast" theme: "For Mr. Blair — and nobody can but admire his resolution and courage — the next few weeks will be the loneliest of his life. He must know the betting is that he can't rely either on his party or the public to support him in the march to war. He must also know the die is cast and he can't withdraw support for America. Certainly, getting that second U.N. resolution is now more important than ever."

It is now to be hoped, said an editorial in Thursday's London Evening Standard, that "a U.N.-backed intervention will be over quickly, disarm Iraq, topple Saddam and vindicate the tough stance taken by Tony Blair and President Bush. The prime minister's situation, while acute, will look very different if there is a short and effective campaign in Iraq. But as yesterday's vote indicated, the prime minister is taking the biggest risk of his political life."


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