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Published: 3/2/2005

British voters' intentions are hard to predict

A WEEK in the United Kingdom in February with national elections perhaps not more than three months away left me puzzled with respect to what to expect as the likely results of those elections.

On the one hand, it seems to me that British citizens are thoroughly tired of Prime Minister Tony Blair, 51, after eight years in office, as they are wont to be with prime ministers who stay too long - however long that is. Cases in point include even the redoubtable Winston Churchill, who led them to victory in World War II, but whom they disposed of as soon as it was over. U.S. President Ronald Reagan's soulmate, the formidable Margaret Thatcher, looked invincible for 11 years and then sank beneath the waves as British public opinion shifted.

But, although they seem tired of Mr. Blair, they don't seem to prefer the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to his Labor Party. They pick at the Labor Party, its policies, and its personalities, starting with Mr. Blair himself. But they find the Conservatives and their leader, Michael Howard, and the Liberal Democrats with Charles Kennedy, not terribly convincing alternatives to Labor and Mr. Blair.

So that may leave the alternative of replacing Mr. Blair with Gordon Brown, 54, the current chancellor of the exchequer, as head of the party, and thus prime minister if Labor wins in the late spring, before the elections. Mr. Brown is clearly strong and bright, if a bit snarly. He made a very successful trip to Africa in January, demonstrating clearly his ability to represent the United Kingdom in international circles.

The substance of what Mr. Brown was presenting to his African interlocutors spoke directly to their needs and was very welcome. Interestingly enough, his trip and his message were also directly in line with what Mr. Blair has been advocating for months now - extensive debt relief and greatly increased development aid to African countries, to try to pull them out of their major economic nosedive with respect to the rest of the world.

Thus, it wasn't a question of Mr. Brown making himself look good by comparison to Mr. Blair through his trip, potentially advancing the case to replace Mr. Blair with him as Labor Party leader. Instead, he was carrying the ball for a program with which Mr. Blair himself is fully identified.

The real relationship between Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown is hard to peel out from how the mischievous British press tries to portray it. Some say that Mr. Blair promised Mr. Brown years ago that he would serve as prime minister for a while and then hand it over to Mr. Brown. Those looking for gaps in the Labor Party facade say that Mr. Blair wants to stay longer than Mr. Brown wants him to, and will thus be stiffing his loyal mate if he stands again this year. Others say that Labor Party leaders fear that without Mr. Blair's relative charisma - compared with Mr. Brown's lower wattage charm - Labor will lose if Mr. Blair doesn't stay.

From the point of view of the United States, there could be considerable difference between Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown in terms of policy. Tony Blair, for better or for worse, has his relationship with President Bush and his firm adherence to the Bush Administration's policy line, particularly on the Iraq war, hung around his neck like the Ancient Mariner's albatross. Mr. Blair has been battered left, right, and center for this position. The Europeans of the European Union, notably France and Germany, despise him for it, seeing the British prime minister as an American toady, an opinion shared by British anti-war types, although probably not enough of them to actually get rid of him.

Ironically enough, George Bush hasn't done much to help Mr. Blair in terms of British public opinion, even if he could. The segment of the British public that likes Blair for his pro-American, pro-Bush administration stance - as opposed to a position adhering more closely to the mainstream European line - are those who feel comfortable sticking with America in any case, and opposing closer British integration into the European Union. Mr. Blair sees closer British cooperation with the EU and playing an active role in it as the wave of the future.

Mr. Bush has so far not supported Mr. Blair in his effort to turn the coincidence of British leadership of the G-8 group this year and an EU presidency that begins this summer into something for the Africans. Mr. Bush has left Mr. Blair twisting in the breeze on this subject because the Bush Administration's own budget situation - strapped - leaves no money that he can get from the Congress with which to support Mr. Blair's project.

So what can we expect in Britain in late spring? I don't think Mr. Blair will step aside to Mr. Brown. I think the Labor Party will win, but with a reduced margin of seats in the parliament. To win that, I think Mr. Blair will have to swear on a stack of bibles that this is his last term.

But I'm not sure even that will work. Because of domestic issues such as immigration and weakened public services, British public distaste with the Iraq war, and general fatigue with Labor Party rule, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could take enough seats to deny Labor a majority, then form a coalition government to rule in its place.

Labor hasn't slipped enough yet to make that happen, but time remains. We can watch to see how smart a campaign Labor wages in the effort to hang on, but the outcome is in my view by no means certain at this point.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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