Britain's Blues Over Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, campaigning for reelection May 5, has a record that appears as solid as the stone walls of Windsor Castle.

The United Kingdom's economy is the envy of London's friends across the Channel and the Atlantic, boasting more than 12 years of continuous growth, along with low interest and unemployment rates. Since taking office in 1997, Mr. Blair helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and more self-government to Scotland and Wales. He has invested substantially in social services - though the public still awaits much needed improvement in hospitals, education, and public transportation.

Politically, Blair redefined his party as "New Labour," moving it to the right, and broadening its appeal so that he won strong victories in his two previous elections. (The same "third way" appeal helped Bill Clinton get elected twice as US president.)

But this third run for the premiership (Britain has no term limit) is far riskier for Blair. The opposition Conservatives have crept even with Labour in some opinion polls, or are not so far behind.

The risk is not that Blair will lose, which, because of Britain's electoral setup, is unlikely. But a narrow victory margin would translate into lost seats for his party in Parliament, and could weaken his ability to follow through on reforms, such as more choice in public services. He may be further weakened as premier by an expectation that he'll step aside during his third term and hand the baton to Gordon Brown, his popular finance minister (and rival-in-waiting, who has more traditional Labour tendencies).

How is it that a prime minister with such a formidable record has a job approval rating of 35 percent, according to one poll? Part of it is the staleness factor. Like fish and guests after three days, prime ministers who seek third terms sometimes don't fare so well either.

Blair also suffers a huge credibility gap over wrong information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and his judgment to support the Iraq war. The Conservatives are milking the mistrust for all it's worth, and pointing out other vulnerabilities, such as lax immigration laws and rising violent crime.

That believability problem will no doubt make it more difficult for Blair to convince Britons to vote for a European constitution next year. He was unable to bring his skeptical island nation to forsake pounds for euros.

Blair's got to have one thing on his mind: winning a wide majority in Parliament. If he loses too many seats, the quack-quacking of a lame duck will no doubt be heard from 10 Downing Street. That could well mean not only a petering out of Blair's influence, but of New Labour's as well.

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