Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tony Blair's Poll Tax

Here's my piece on the demise of Tony Blair from today's Australian.,20867,19080295-7583,00.html

Iraq has proved to be Labour PM's poll tax, explains Neil Clark
May 10, 2006

HE'S won three election victories in a row and is the longest-serving Labour prime minister in history. He has presided over the longest period of sustained economic growth in Britain since records began and is widely admired in the US and Australia. Why then is Tony Blair fighting for his political life?
Most commentators agree that Blair's resignation is now months rather than years away. It may even come sooner than that. The political situation in Britain today reminds one of the autumn of 1990, the dying days of the Thatcher era.
Blair's fall from grace certainly has uncanny similarities with the Iron Lady's demise. Margaret Thatcher, like Blair, was a leader who thought she was infallible. Comfortable election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987 led her to believe that she could simply go "on and on and on" and would continue to be re-elected regardless of the unpopularity of her policies.
By the late 1980s Thatcher was politically living in a world of her own. Ignoring the advice of many of her senior advisers and ministers, she pressed ahead with the plan to introduce the poll tax, a hugely contentious measure that led to a year of violent anti-government protests.
Blair's poll tax has been Iraq. Believing the war would cause no more political damage to him than the earlier conflict with Yugoslavia, he enthusiastically supported the US plans for invasion, even though members of his cabinet and the parliamentary Labour Party - to say nothing of the majority of the British public - had grave misgivings.
The Prime Minister was convinced deposing Saddam Hussein would be relatively easy and that when a pro-Western government was installed in Baghdad, his approval ratings would rise to even higher levels. Blair was indeed praised to the rafters when the statue of the Iraqi dictator was toppled in Baghdad's Fardus Square in April 2003. But it's been downhill all the way for him since.
As all but the most hardline neo-conservatives will now concede, the Iraq intervention has been an unmitigated disaster. A secular dictator who posed no threat to the West has been deposed at enormous human and financial cost and his country transformed into a breeding ground for Islamic jihadists. For leading Britain into such a quagmire, it is only right that Blair be held fully accountable.
The Labour MPs who gave their leader the benefit of the doubt over Iraq in 2003 now feel less need to stand obediently in line. There was never much love lost between most of the party and its private-school, anti-socialist leader. But for as long as Blair was riding high in the polls and winning elections, most Labour MPs were happy to forget their principles and put up with a leader who counted Silvio Berlusconi, George W. Bush and John Howard as friends and who bragged to an audience of millionaire bankers at Goldman Sachs that they were paying less income tax than under Thatcher.
However, last week's local election results, in which Labour lost more than 350 council seats, showed that if the status quo is maintained Labour's parliamentary majority could be wiped out. The party is registering its lowest level of public support since the dark days of the early '80s and Labour backbenchers are becoming anxious.
The immediate response to the electoral setback has been a letter circulating among Labour MPs urging that Blair should declare, before the summer recess, a date for his departure. The new Home Secretary and staunch Blairite John Reid claims the signatories are members of the old Left who want to turn the clock back and stop the reform program. But among those willing to sign the letter are three former New Labour ministers, none of whom could be described as a committed leftist.
Blair's admirers in the right-wing press are also withdrawing their support. The Daily Telegraph, a staunch supporter of Blair's foreign policy, The Times, one of Blair's most consistent allies, and The Economist argue the game is up for Blair.
A Conservative Party mini-revival under the new, youthful leadership of David Cameron has undoubtedly added to the pressure on Blair. So, too, has a series of scandals that have badly tarnished his Government. But it is Blair's loss of credibility over Iraq that, above all else, will hasten his departure from Downing Street.
The fresh-faced politician for the new millennium now has a tired and haunted look. For nine years the leader of Britain's main left-of-centre grouping kept his party on board despite following a pro-big business, pro-war agenda that most Labour MPs would have attacked with vehemence had it been carried out by the Conservatives.
Now it seems one of the smoothest political magicians Britain has seen has run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat.

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