It was no surprise when British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month called an election for May 5. He could have waited a while, since British elections are usually called about a year before they have to be. The incumbents see this as good tactics. One thing about this election is surprising, though. Blair has got a fight on his hands. The odds strongly favor a third successive Labor victory, but it is going to be a closer contest than last time—and it is no longer inconceivable that the Tories, who recently looked crippled as a political force, might actually win.
Iraq is one reason why Blair is struggling—although the connection is subtler than you might think. Of course, like President Bush, Blair stands accused of lying about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Again like Bush, he never outright lied, in my view. Blair almost certainly believed that the WMD or programs to produce them were there, but he manipulated and exaggerated what little was known for certain in presenting the case for war to the public. That is resented.
Had the Tories been in power, they would have taken Britain to war against Saddam and alongside the United States, just as Labor did, and the voters know that. So the harm Iraq has done to Labor's standing with the electorate rests not so much in the decision to fight. Labor's problem lies in the pattern of duplicity and insincerity that the reckless spinning of the war, before and after the fact, entailed.
Blair's Iraq policy is misunderstood in the United States. He is not the firm-jawed man of principle he is made out to be in America. The real Blair is one part sanctimonious phony and two parts political adding machine. He backed President Bush over Iraq not on principle—his views on international law and the United Nations were instantly discarded—but because his vanity and his devoutly longed-for standing as a great prime minister could not tolerate walking away from a fight (something Margaret Thatcher never did).
Remember, too, that the initial appeal of Tony Blair's new-model Labor Party resided almost entirely in its promise of fair dealing and straight talking. The party's triumph in 1997, its first win in more than 20 years, was built on its indictment of the Tories as the party of "sleaze" (the tabloid newspapers' favorite word of that era). It helped that the Tories' reputation for economic competence lay in pieces after the pound was ejected from Europe's exchange-rate mechanism in 1992. A series of petty scandals (as they now seem) compounded that damage by impugning the integrity of the party and its very tired-looking leaders.
Labor seemed to know what it was talking about on the economy. At least as important, Tony Blair was fresh, idealistic, and honest. Such a contrast to the Tories. This smiling young fellow could look into the camera and say, "Trust me," and, instead of laughing, people did. He had the early Clinton touch. It was an irresistible combination, and Labor won by a landslide. The Tories subsequently caved in completely, and the momentum carried Blair comfortably through a second election victory in 2001.
Thanks partly to good judgment and partly to luck, Labor's newly earned reputation for basic economic competence is secure after two terms. But the freshness, idealism, and honesty have gone. Blair himself has aged a good 15 years in the past eight: He looks tired and demoralized, and that is the least of his worries. The inquiries into the handling of Iraq intelligence and the fight with the BBC over David Kelly (the weapons scientist who cast doubt on the government's integrity, and who subsequently killed himself) left the prime minister and his advisers badly scarred. Blair would no longer dare to say, "Trust me."
Helping to keep the dissembling and misdirection over Iraq at the front of people's minds is the government's solid record elsewhere of elevating presentation over substance. For the most part—and again this is widely understood by the electorate—Blairism offers no distinctive new approach to government, no new answers to the age-old questions of politics. Blair made Labor electable in the mid-1990s by repudiating socialism, by moving the party a good way to the right, and by dressing mostly old-fashioned soft-conservative policies in up-to-the-minute "New Labor" clothes. That was good for the country and good for the party, but it was also dishonest. It called for a great deal of spin and evasion: Why New Labor's policies are not just warmed-over conservatism (which they are), how Labor remains true to its egalitarian roots (which it does not), and so forth.