Rough road ahead for Britain's prime minister

Nationwide fuel blockades in Britain this week caused vast traffic tie-ups, threatening to bring the country to a standstill.

But the blockades, to protest the highest gas prices in Europe, are only one in a series of problems facing Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose premiership began to resemble a multicar pileup.

Analysts say his handling of the fuel crisis in the next few days may confirm or seriously damage his credibility as leader, with nationwide elections expected next year. In the House of Commons, opposition Conservatives can be heard readying brickbats for hurling.

On Tuesday, Mr. Blair was forced to rush back to Downing Street from northern England to deal with the blockade crisis. Senior advisers warned that Britain's road-based economy was within 48 hours of paralysis.

Then officials brought more bad news: The Japanese bank Nomura, which was planning to buy the ailing billion-dollar Millennium Dome, said it was pulling out of the deal. This means it's likely that the immense tent-like structure on the banks of London's River Thames will have to be demolished, causing severe financial loss and embarrassment to the government. Blair had touted the dome as "an example of Britain at its best."

The difficulties facing the Millennium Dome, says a senior adviser to Conservative leader William Hague, illustrate "another of this government's shortcomings.

"Mr. Blair told us it would be something wonderful and that it would attract 12 million visitors," the adviser says. "Instead it has been a failure. Only 4 million have paid for tickets, and Nomura has withdrawn from the deal because the entire project has been mismanaged."

Later that day, word came that the prestigious London Stock Exchange had broken off merger talks with its main rival in Frankfurt, Germany, because of the need to counter a hostile takeover bid from a Swedish company.

Blair and his ministers, meanwhile, were already fending off criticism of Britain's peacemaking role in the West African state of Sierra Leone, a former British colony. Over the weekend, a British soldier was killed and 14 injured during a daring raid to free six British troops held hostage by a rebel militia.

To make matters worse, a new book written by a leading political analyst, claims Blair has spent his years in office quarreling with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Mr. Brown, the second most powerful figure in the government, wants Blair's job according to author Andrew Rawnsley, and has endeavored to keep Blair out of the loop on important fiscal-policy decisions.

Another book soon to be published will accuse Blair of "easing out" Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam, who as Northern Ireland Secretary played a key role in engineering the peace process and became his most popular minister.

Michael White, political editor with London's Guardian newspaper, says the fuel crisis is "at the heart" of Blair's problems.

He compares it to the threat former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher confronted in the 1980s; she successfully faced down striking coal miners and went on to win a general election.

In a hastily convened news conference late Tuesday, a stern-faced Blair attempted to strike a Thatcher-like tone. He told oil companies to begin moving tankers from besieged refineries and fuel depots "within 24 hours," and ordered police to make sure the vehicles had escorts. Targeting the truck and taxi drivers and farmers staging fuel protests, Blair said, "Were we to yield to that pressure it would run counter to every democratic principle this country believes in."

About 100 gas tankers were on the move yesterday, but they were supplying only hospitals and emergency services. Most of the nation's 6,000 gas stations remained empty, with little prospect of supplies until the weekend. A company moving food to supermarkets said most of its delivery trucks would be out of gas by the end of the day.

Drivers of trucks and other commercial vehicles, meanwhile, gridlocked parts of central London and feeder roads around the British capital.

Opposition leader Mr. Hague accused Blair of "drifting" in the face of the fuel problem.

"The government's sheer arrogance and refusal to take on board the public's grievances shows them to be an out-of-touch and tax-raising government that has failed to get a grip on the crisis," he said.

By taking a tough line on fuel movements, Blair was attempting to break out of the crisis, but risks painting himself into a corner, analysts say. On the other hand, says political analyst Mr. White, Blair must take into account what happened 21 years ago when James Callaghan, a former Labour prime minister, responded to widespread strikes by saying, "Crisis? What crisis?"

A few months later, Callaghan was succeeded by Mrs. Thatcher, who remained Britain's leader for a dozen years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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