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Britons ask: Can they trust Tony?

It is a cruel but perfect irony of politics that fighting for votes for others may cost you votes of your own. Such is the paradox facing Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair as he campaigns to keep his job this week and the "Iraq issue" won't seem to away. NBC News' Chris Hampson reports from London.
Blair Continues The Election Campaign In The Northwest
Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Labour supporters as he leaves All Saints Church after making a campaign speech Tuesday in Wellington, England. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

It is a cruel but perfect irony of politics that fighting for votes for others may cost you votes of your own.

Such is the paradox facing Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair as he campaigns to keep his job this week.

What started out as a lackluster election campaign has caught fire these past few days on the issue they thought had gone away: Iraq.

Blair’s Labour Party administration hoped it had put the controversial conflict behind it as it headed for Thursday’s general election.

For a while it seemed it had. Domestic issues dominated. It was, said the media, rather dull. Not anymore.

Iraq issue rears its head
As the first-time voters of Iraq watch the jockeying for power in their newly-elected government, it seems Blair is picking up the political bill back home.

The British have a long tradition of democratic dissent and never more so, it seems right now, over “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Two years ago hundreds of thousands of protesters took to this country’s streets in an effort to dissuade the government from joining the United States in the campaign.

Blair would not be turned — and the rest you know. It was a done deal. Saddam Hussein was toppled by the self-styled “coalition of the willing” and the people of Iraq got the vote.

Problem is, not everyone here was quite so willing. And the echoes of their protests have come to haunt Blair.

So what if no weapons of mass destruction were found? So what if many thousands of people died? So what if there was no second United Nations resolution? So what if Blair led his country into war?

Well on Thursday he’ll get the chance to count the “so whats” — and it will likely make a disturbing picture.

Integrity issue
But it’s not only the war that seems to be on the minds of the British public right now. This has become a vote about the prime minister’s personal integrity. Did he mislead the country about the reasons for going to war? Was it legal?

The issue came to a head last week with the leaking of secret advice from the government’s most senior attorney, Lord Goldsmith, which appeared to show he held serious doubts about the legality of invading Iraq.

That was his view on March 7, 2003.

By March 17, just 10 days later, those doubts appeared to have gone. Blair was given the go-ahead to march the country to war.

What happened?

The government says there’s no mystery here. In those crucial 10 days, it argues, it became blindingly obvious that Saddam Hussein was not going to comply with the United Nations’ clear mandates. It was right and lawful to attack.

The doubters — including many traditional supporters of Blair’s Labour Party — smell a rat. 

They think Goldsmith was leaned on for political purposes. To put it bluntly, they believe Blair, like President Bush, had set his mind on going to war — and was not prepared to allow a little matter like international law to get in his way.

Attacks get personal
The row has provided the pro-war Tory leader Michael Howard with some much-needed ammunition to boost his faltering campaign. His party has consistently lagged in the opinion polls.

He got personal. Blair, he said, was a liar — a word that is banned inside the Houses of Parliament but not, apparently, outside. Strong language, stronger tactics.

For his part, Blair has given up trying to persuade people about the merits, or otherwise, of invading Iraq.

His message to the voters: I took the decision for what I believed were the right reasons. You may not agree with me. You may think it was the wrong decision. But judge me on that — and do not question my integrity.

Noble thoughts — but not enough to get him off the hook. Every interview, every public meeting seems dominated by this one issue: trust in the prime minister.

So much for campaigning on Labour’s record on the economy, healthcare, education and crime. And it’s this that is worrying his campaign managers.

Monday’s slaying of a British soldier by an Iraqi insurgent’s bomb — the 87th British fatality —has only fueled the headlines. His widow has blamed Blair for depriving her three kids of a father. Strong stuff just 48 hours before votes will be cast.

Blair won the last election four years ago with a huge parliamentary majority. People still liked him and appeared to believe what he promised. He was an asset to his party — a popular vote-winner, not a vote-loser. Not bad for a prime minister beginning a second term in office.

Brave call to vote on record
Now things are more difficult to call.  The third party in British politics — the Liberal Democrats — opposed the war from the outset. They are the traditional home of the “protest” vote, especially for disaffected Labour voters.

The Lib Dems, as they are known, won’t win, though they are making gains at the expense of both their main rivals. And they look bound to upset the apple cart in an as-yet unknown number of key parliamentary seats by drawing vital votes away.

Right now, the opinion polls are increasingly reflecting the fragility of Labour’s lead. The Tories and Labour have resorted to negative campaigning: not so much “Vote for Us” as “Don’t vote for Them.”

No-one is as yet predicting anything but a Labour victory at this election, though Blair is unlikely to win it as convincingly as he might have done just a week or so ago.

He has told the British public it must judge him on his record.

A brave call. Millions of voters are preparing to do just that on Thursday.

Only then will we know if Blair, in helping bring the vote to Iraq, will lose many of his own votes at home.