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Can battered Blair survive?

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street on his way to the House of Commons in London, on Monday.   Matt Dunham / Reuters file

It was, according to the BBC’s respected political editor Andrew Marr, "a long night of the soul" for Prime Minister Tony Blair -– the point at which Britain’s battle-scarred premier reportedly came close to calling it quits.

What brought on this recent sleepless night? An unfortunate combo platter: increased violence in Iraq, poor poll ratings, and his Labor Party's dismal results in June’s local elections. Individually each could cause a politician indigestion and disturbed sleep. Taken together, they’re the stuff of nightmares.

Blair’s government is in mid-term, post-war doldrums. An election must be held sometime next year. And Blair -– once the Golden Boy -– is the subject of anxious mutterings. Maybe the man who led the party to two election victories, ousting the Conservatives after 18 years in government, just might be becoming a liability.

Hence Blair’s apparent soul-searching. Marr reported this weekend that some of Blair’s closest supporters –- including his wife Cherie -– talked him down off the ledge. The prime minister, he said, was now "in steely mood."

He will need to be. 

Butler Report not expected to be pretty
For although Blair allies dismissed the Marr story as "nonsense," it’s generally accepted that he’s been having a tough time of it for a while. 

And it’s about to get tougher. Hard on the heels of the Senate’s damning report into U.S. intelligence failures in assessing the threat from Iraq, comes the British equivalent.

The Butler Report, so called because the independent inquiry into pre-Iraq war intelligence was led by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler, is due on Wednesday and, according to leaks, will add to Blair’s political woes.

While many Americans may thrill at the sight of the two leaders, Bush and Blair, striding out side-by-side to face the cameras together, it seems many British citizens opposed to the war despair at the sight. Ironically, many of them come from the ranks of Blair’s traditional Labor supporters.

The prime minister has been trying, often in vain, to turn the media spotlight onto domestic policies like health and education -– areas he judges to be the crucial issues for voters. But the conflict in Iraq is never far away.

It’s not yet clear how much blame Lord Butler will pin directly onto Blair. But one report suggests he may accuse the prime minister of failing to take sufficient responsibility in the months before the invasion.

Blair has already been forced to admit that weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq. That was one of the major reasons he gave for taking Britain into war and goes straight to his credibility with the British voters.

However, he insists that it was right to topple Saddam Hussein.

Elections may be the test
Whether the voters agree will become a little clearer at the end of the week, with the results of mini-elections for two seats in the House of Commons. These so-called "by-elections" are traditionally litmus tests of a government’s popularity.

They are rare opportunities within the term of a government, which can last up to five years in the U.K., for voters to show their feelings. And the smart money is on Labor taking a beating.

That’s not unusual for any government at this point in its history. Indeed, while Blair’s party may have been feeling the voters’ displeasure recently, its main rival isn’t doing much better. 

The Conservative Party still hasn’t yet found the traction it needs to present itself as a sure-fire alternative government at the next general election. Margaret Thatcher’s "glory days" are now light years away and the party’s still struggling to re-establish itself.

So while some voters may not like what Blair has done, they may not feel they have anywhere else to go. (Despite the presence of other major parties, the British electoral system is largely a two-horse race).

Division within party ranks
Not all the speculation about Blair’s future comes from the outside.  It’s no secret that he and  Chancellor Gordon Brown are -– in political terms -– deadly rivals. Both were at one time in the running to lead the party. Brown, reportedly, gave way.

But ever since, he’s had his eye on the crown. And recently the briefings and counter-briefings have been running high from both camps.

Over the weekend, Blair's big guns were wheeled out to blow holes in Marr’s resignation report. Blair, one insisted, would stay for another five years.

That may well be so.  But, if Blair does lie awake at nights, he will no doubt remember what happened to another illustrious leader, Margaret Thatcher.  When her party feared she might lead them to defeat, her colleagues ousted her.

It was not so much a “long night of the soul.” More a “night of the long knives,” as another infamous political purge was termed in the U.K. some years back.

It’s a bloody business, politics. Blair, for one, knows it.