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Archive for Wednesday, May 26, 1999

HONEYMOON ENDING FOR BLAIR

May 26, 1999

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— At the beginning of his third year in office, British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces nowhere near the serious problems his friend President Clinton experienced at the same juncture, when Republicans had just recaptured Congress and Dick Morris had yet to introduce Clinton to the tranquilizing effects of "triangulation."

But the honeymoon is ending for New Labor and its charismatic leader.

Last week in the biggest back-bench rebellion since the election of 1997, 67 Labor members of Parliament defied the party whips and voted against a government bill tightening eligibility requirements and requiring means-testing for disability benefits. Another 15 abstained, reducing Labor's nominal majority of 176 votes to barely 40.

The rebellion against this relatively modest abridgement in the welfare state had echoes of the congressional Democrats' unhappiness in 1996 when Clinton signed the welfare reform bill sent to him by the Republican Congress. Traditionalists like Roy Hattersley, who have little sympathy for Blair's "Third Way" revisionism, said, "We can rejoice that the principles (of the Labor Party) are not dead but sleeping."

Blair now faces the necessity of scaling back his reforms in order to get the bill through the House of Lords, where, as one government insider disgustedly told me, "hereditary Tory lords will ride in from the countryside to save the same poor their party did nothing to help during its decades in power."

Even though his party rebels have lodged similar complaints against pending moves to restrict housing allowances and benefits to refugees, this power play by the Labor left and the Tory right is probably no more than a temporary setback to Blair's ambitious agenda. But it comes at a time when his government is enduring a variety of embarrassments:

It faces mounting criticism over its slow response to leaked reports from within the government that genetically modified plants and foods may pose a threat to the environment and public health.

Press reports have zeroed in on the behind-the-scenes role of Blair's policy and political consultants, who are viewed as suspiciously by Cabinet ministers and Labor members of Parliament as Dick Morris, James Carville and Paul Begala were by Democrats on Capitol Hill. News that the costs of staffing the prime minister's office have risen 56 percent since Blair's election drew scorn in Parliament.

The elections held earlier this month for the newly created Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, both landmarks of Blair's devolution policy, were less than glorious victories for the Labor Party, which has traditionally been dominant in those lands. Stronger than expected showings by nationalist parties, combined with the system of proportional representation Blair had introduced, forced Labor into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and required it to form a minority government in Wales.

A Blair adviser told me the Welsh results, which were particularly disappointing, came because "we have taken our supporters for granted." The Economist noted, "This electoral convulsion is likely to have far-reaching consequences. It will put the strength of Britain as a coherent political unit under more constant and more severe test; it will cause the English and not just the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to question their position in the British political union; and it will strain to the utmost the capacity of politicians running the British government to acknowledge that there are now other centers of power which will kick against attempts to make them toe a Westminster line."

The saving grace for Blair in all of this is the weakness and ineptitude of the Conservative opposition, which ran even worse in the Scottish and Welsh voting than it had in the 1997 general election. The Tory leader, William Hague, was described to me by a leading official in Margaret Thatcher's government as "the wrong man at the wrong time," a relative youngster who, he said, should have been saved to fight another day, and not be thrown up against an agile and popular prime minister in a booming economy.

The Conservatives remain deeply divided on the question of Britain's relationship with Europe; a splinter group of pro-European Tories is challenging the endorsed candidates in next month's European Parliament elections.

The Blair adviser I interviewed seemed confident that by 2002, when New Labor will go to the polls for a second-term mandate, the tribulations of the moment will be forgotten in a panorama of broad social and economic reform.

But, like Clinton, Blair's greatest asset may well be the recklessness of his opposition.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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