The Comeback Premier

'I will survive," Tony Blair stated defiantly, as he faced back-to-back tests to his leadership this week that could have easily toppled him.

Survive he did. Likened by one of his opponents to a greased piglet, Britain's prime minister squeaked by in a narrow House of Commons vote Tuesday that moved the country's slipping state-supported universities a step closer to a fee-based system - and another mile down the road of Mr. Blair's social reforms.

The next day he was cleared by a judge of any mishandling in the case of David Kelly, a scientist who killed himself last summer after being named as the source of an erroneous BBC report that Blair had hyped the Iraqi threat.

But if embattled Blair is to move forward with his "third-way" strategy of applying accountability and market forces to his country's ailing social services, he will need to do more than survive. Having overcome this week's crises, he must vigorously push his reform agenda.

Since coming to power seven years ago, Blair, in his own way, has carried on the tradition of reform begun by former Conservative Premier Margaret Thatcher.

Adding to the economic restructuring of the Thatcher years, the energetic leader of "new Labour" set in place parliamentary reform, reduced waiting time at the nation's hospitals, reduced crime, and increased the independence of the Bank of England. But much remains to be done, including the implementation of his education and health reforms, and the tackling of the underperforming rail system.

It could be argued that Blair is too politically weak to forge ahead. The university reform vote, which would nearly triple nominal student fees to buttress cash-strapped higher education, was heavily opposed by the "old Labour" wing of his party. The vote exposed significant internal Labour resistance to his reform agenda. The public also remains skeptical of the war in Iraq. And perhaps two-term Blair is reaching the end of his job's natural life cycle. The next election is due in 2005.

But Blair still has much going for him. Unlike his struggling, fellow "third-wayer" on the Continent, Germany's Gerhard Schröder, the British leader faces neither a strong opposition, a sagging economy, nor the drag of coalition partners. In fact, Britain is the only industrialized nation to have escaped economic recession since 1997, in part because of its two decades of reform.

Blair needs to remind his party's left wing of this economic success, and work harder to convince it of the rightness of his course.

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