May 6, 2005 | WebMemo on Europe
Tony Blair was elected on May 5 to a third term as British Prime Minister, but with a greatly reduced majority in the House of Commons. The ruling Labour Party's majority was slashed from 161 seats to just 66. Labour received only 36 percent of the popular vote, an all time low for a winning party in a British election.
Blair's margin of victory was tempered by historically low approval ratings and widespread public dissatisfaction with the state of public services, including healthcare, education, and transport, as well as public concern over crime and immigration. Although the Iraq war was not a dominant issue for the majority of British voters, Blair's personal credibility took a battering over unfair charges that he had lied to the British public when he took Britain into war.
The Conservative Party, led by Michael Howard, made significant gains in this election, winning an additional 33 seats. The election marks the beginning of a Conservative recovery, after two disastrous elections in 1997 and 2001. Howard has already announced that he will stand down as party leader, and he will probably be replaced by either Shadow Home Secretary David Davis or party co-Chairman Liam Fox. Both are Thatcherites, on the right of the party, and strong supporters of the Anglo-U.S. special relationship. Whoever replaces Howard should have a realistic shot at becoming British Prime Minister in 2009 or 2010.
Although Tony Blair has pledged to serve a full five-year term, it is widely expected that he will step down mid-way through what will be his final period of office. It is now increasingly likely that Blair will give way to his long-time political colleague and rival Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. If the British public overwhelmingly rejects the European Constitution in a projected 2006 referendum (opinion polls indicate that this will be the case), there is a very strong possibility that Blair may depart even earlier. A crushing defeat for Blair on this issue that he has personally championed may make his position untenable.
Blair's relatively poor domestic standing and the growing sense that he may be a 'lame duck' will weaken his position on the international scene. While Blair's close partnership with President George W. Bush in the war on terror will remain, it is unlikely to keep the highly visible profile that dominated the world stage since September 11. It may be a more subdued affair, with a greater emphasis on behind the scenes discussions than high profile summits held amidst great fanfare.
Although Blair has been damaged by the controversy in the UK over the Iraq war, he is unlikely to bow to calls for an early withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. However, his role as a key leader of the international coalition of the willing on Iraq could become less prominent.
The debate over Iraq will undoubtedly have a huge impact on Blair's reaction to the growing Iranian nuclear crisis. As the matter moves, as it likely will, to the Security Council for debate later this year, U.S.-British cooperation will be critical. Blair will be under intense pressure from many in his own Labour Party to resist standing alongside Washington in a hard-line stance toward Tehran and instead continue with the policy of 'constructive engagement' supported by France and Germany. There is the potential for a split between London and Washington on the Iranian issue, which would send a message of division to the Mullahs in Tehran. Blair may also have to choose between America and Europe over the issue of the EU's proposed lifting of the China arms embargo, which has the potential to cause a major confrontation between Washington and Brussels.
As Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union and the G-8 later this year, Blair may place greater emphasis on 'softer' issues, more in tune with the concerns of his own party, which has traditionally been left-of-center on foreign policy. Foreign aid, Third World debt forgiveness, and climate change will all be priority issues.
Blair's Place in History
The British election marks the beginning of the end of the Blair era. Tony Blair returns to Downing Street with some of the lowest personal approval ratings for a British Prime Minister in recent memory, and his ruling Labour Party has been re-elected with just over a third of the popular vote, hardly a popular mandate. It is highly unlikely that Blair will see out his term of office, and he may not survive beyond the British referendum on the European Constitution. Indeed, it is the issue of Europe that may ultimately bring about his downfall.
Blair's main strength as Prime Minister has been his leadership on the world stage in confronting terrorism. He should be given huge credit for his central role in the war on terror and for the courage of his convictions in going to war in Iraq in the face of tremendous opposition from much of his own party and several weak-kneed European governments. His steadfast support for the United States in the four years since September 11 and his key role in building the international coalition of the willing demonstrated principled leadership as well as vision.
Blair's key weaknesses as British leader have been his willingness to relinquish British sovereignty in Europe and his misguided belief that Britain can be both America's closest ally and part of a politically and economically integrated Europe. His support for the European Constitution is a strategic error of judgment. Its ratification is fundamentally against the British national interest as well as American interests. Indeed, the most prominent casualty of a united European foreign policy would be the Anglo-U.S. special relationship.
For his role in the war on terror and the liberation of Iraq, Tony Blair will rightly be regarded by historians as one the most important British leaders of the post-war generation. However, he should not be viewed on a par with either Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher, both of whom fundamentally altered the course of history and played major roles in defeating the two most dangerous ideologies of modern times: Fascism and Communism.
Unlike Mr. Blair, Churchill and Thatcher both had a crystal clear understanding of the British national interest and the need to defend British sovereignty. Blair, with his support for the European Constitution, would unfortunately compromise both.
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.