- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s informal presidential style of government, his decision to go war in Iraq and the popular distrust of his leadership may mean he could fail to win a historic third term when the British vote on May 5.

Today, Mr. Blair’s personal popularity ratings are atrocious; most British voters no longer trust him. An April 4 Financial Times/MORI poll puts the Conservative Party 5 percent ahead of the Labor Party. Crucially, Conservative voters are saying they are more likely to vote, while many Labor supporters are discouraged and disillusioned and may not turn out for Mr. Blair.

Mr. Blair’s replacement of collective cabinet government with an informal presidential setup has been extremely unpopular among voters. But it is easily recognized by observers of the White House and is centered on results, not process, with discussions being informal rather than structured, involving a select few trusted aides gathered in the office. Unfortunately, as Mr. Blair’s former Cabinet Secretary Lord Wilson has noted, “that informality can slide into something more fluid and unstructured where advice and dissent may either not always be offered or else not be heard.” Richard Clarke could certainly empathize with that observation.

This modus operandi meant that in the run up to the war in Iraq, the British cabinet was out of the loop. Instead, an informal group met, which included the foreign and defense ministers, the Army chief of staff and a small number of other advisers. The decisions of this group were then transmitted to the cabinet, which was not privy to the detailed reports necessary to make a considered lucid judgment of the case to go or not to go to war. So they collectively stood mute. Professor Peter Hennessy, (author of a seminal analysis of the British cabinet), suggests, probably correctly, that if in early 2003 Chancellor Gordon Brown had “dissented in the cabinet room let alone publicly from the Prime Minister’s war policy … British armed forces would not have been involved in the March invasion of Iraq.” In the end, only one significant British cabinet member, Robin Cook, resigned over Iraq.

Today it is striking how similar the subsequent criticisms of the Blair-style of government, of the Iraq policy and its results are to those leveled at the Bush administration. Both administrations were lambasted for faulty intelligence; for a concentration on the desired results, not the evidence, or lack thereof; for questionable legal briefs fashioned as cover for dubious policy decisions; for an initial refusal to cooperate with external analyses of the resulting of policy failures. We have had the September 11 commission and WMD reports, while the British had their caustic Hutton and Butler reports. All the above post-mortems were damning of the operation and processes of British and United States administrations in the run up to the war.

Once again, the similarities continue. On May 5, Mr. Blair faces his electorate offering a choice not unlike that which Mr. Bush gave Americans in November 2004. “Vote for me.” “Forget about my failures in planning for war with Iraq.” “Look: the economy is growing.” “Don’t trust the other guy to run this country.”

Mr. Blair may just pull it off, but only if enough Labor voters turn out, despite their disgust over his foreign policy and decide Labor’s economic stewardship is too good to give up. In the end this outcome is the most likely one; a much reduced Labor majority in the House of Commons. If voters deliver a slender victory, Mr. Blair will secure a historic third term, as the author of the “third way,” a vindication of sorts for his sanitized social democracy. But if Mr. Blair loses, he will be remembered as the prime minister who allied with a Republican president, took the country to war on bogus pretexts, and neutered British cabinet government once and for all.

Stuart P.M. Mackintosh is a former chief of staff and principal speech writer to Labor Party members of the European Parliament. He also worked on previous Labor national election campaigns.

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