Blair’s Middle East stance weakens his authority

By Katherine Baldwin

LONDON- British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s stance on the Lebanon crisis has deepened divisions in his Labour Party, further weakening his authority and potentially hastening his departure from office.

While working furiously to agr

ee a United Nations resolution to resolve the conflict, Blair has refused from its outset to call for an immediate ceasefire or question Israel’s military response to Hizbollah guerrillas, mirroring U.S. policy.

Blair has said he will not stand in the next election expected in 2009. Many Labour supporters have urged him to quit sooner rather than later, worried by the impact of his plunging popularity on the party’s electoral prospects.

His actions during the 23-day-old crisis have recruited more members to this rebel camp, party members and analysts said.

“I think there is very widespread unease in the Labour Party and the country,” Labour parliamentarian and former minister Joan Ruddock told Reuters. She said the current conflict had sharpened the “fissures” between Blair and some lawmakers.

“My view is that the policy has been driven entirely by the need as he perceives it to stand shoulder to shoulder with (U.S. President) George W. Bush,” she added.

Anger over the Lebanon crisis has compounded unease in Labour and the country over Blair’s support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, seen by some as the biggest mistake of his premiership.

Public support for him has plummeted to its lowest since he came to office in 1997, a poll on Monday by Ipsos MORI showed.

Sixty seven percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way Blair was doing his job.

Blair no longer needs to win elections but his stance may decide how long he stays in office, the smoothness of a handover to his presumed successor, finance minister Gordon Brown, and his legacy.

CONFRONTATION AT CONFERENCE

Blair, who is about to go abroad on holiday, next faces his Labour Party at its annual conference in September unless parliament is recalled, which is unlikely.

By then, fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas may be over and a lasting settlement could be in place. Labour unrest over Blair’s handling of the crisis may have waned.

But dissent over his staunch support for Bush and what some critics call his “presidential” style of politics has become even more entrenched, some analysts and Labour members said.

One government minister has broken ranks and condemned Israel’s actions as “disproportionate”. Other ministers have privately questioned Blair’s policy, British newspapers said.

“This has done him a lot of damage even among some people who are generally regarded as Blair loyalists,” said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University.

“These things are cumulative … The more this goes on the more likely an early departure is.”

Most in Labour expect Blair to hand the party reins to Brown in 2007 or 2008. Grant said Labour anger over the Middle East crisis could now make it even more difficult for Blair to hold out until 2008, as some loyalists have suggested.

Labour parliamentarian Ian Davidson, a frequent Blair critic, said many in the party want Blair to give a timetable for his departure at the party conference.

The annual gathering was always going to be difficult for Blair and Davidson said the Middle East crisis could give his critics something new to rally around. “There is a very strong feeling that we are in the end days of the regime,” he said.

FOREIGN INFLUENCE WANING?

Blair accepted on Thursday there was unrest in government, parliament and the country over his Middle East policy.

But — with the self-belief that has been a mainstay of his premiership and particularly his foreign policy — he said he was confident he was doing the right thing.

“When he’s convinced he’s right he is absolutely inflexible,” said Blair biographer Anthony Seldon.

Seldon said Blair’s refusal to cave in to his critics showed his strength. Others believe Blair has lost credibility at home and abroad by siding so solidly with Bush.

“Mr Blair’s total identification with the White House has destroyed his influence in Washington, Europe and the Middle East itself: Who bothers with the monkey if he can go straight to the organ-grinder?” wrote Rodric Braithwaite, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, in the Financial Times on Thursday. — Reuter 

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