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Tony Blair, Down to the Wire - Can He Squeak By?

Tuesday, 03 May 2005 12:00 AM

However, another poll published the same day in the Daily Telegraph had Blair leading by only three percent, down one percent from the previous week.

And a poll by the Guardian just 48 hours before the election showed that Blair's party's vote share in 108 key seats in Parliament had dropped precipitously from 47 percent to 41 percent.

What's more, while Blair had a solid lead among those certain to vote, a Financial Times poll found that 36 percent of voters said they might still change their mind regarding their choice.

"Tony Blair's had credibility problems for some time," said Anthony King, a professor of government at Britain's Essex University.

"It's partly the failure to find those weapons in Iraq, but it's also the case that rather as was said about Bill Clinton, this has been an administration of spin. People have been mistrustful for a long time and Iraq just made it worse.

"But notice that British elections, unlike American elections, are not in the end elections about one person. People are not going to the polls to vote for Tony Blair. They're going to the polls to decide whether they want to have a Labour government or a Conservative government in power."

For many British voters, a big issue in the election is immigration – every opinion poll places it in the top three or four issues in the campaign.

A significant number of voters are up in arms over the wave of foreigners that has arrived in Britain in the eight years since Labour came to power. From 1997 to 2002, net migration to Britain topped 1.1 million, about double what it had been during the previous five years.

Blair's opponent Michael Howard has called for tough opposition to illegal immigration and is against amnesty for asylum seekers. One Conservative candidate for Parliament ran a local ad with the line: "What bit of ‘send them back' don't you understand, Mr. Blair?"

Brian Chazzell, a small business owner in Dover, told a reporter: "We're a small island and we're still trying to be the great empire trying to help out every Tom, Dick and Harry. You can only open the door so long before the house is full. Mr. Howard is correct. It is about time we spoke about how many people we can hold."

Said Professor King: "Very large numbers of Britons are very unhappy about the state of law and order in this country – crime, violent crime. They're unhappy about the level of immigration into this country. That's what the Conservatives have wanted to play this election on."

Blair has gotten some help from media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has spoken out against Howard's stand on immigration, and Murdoch's newspaper The Sun - Britain's biggest-selling paper - has endorsed Blair.

The generally right-leaning Sun has supported Blair's left-leaning Labour party in its past two election wins, but it has campaigned against many of Blair's policies, including closer integration with the European Union.

The Sun's and Murdoch's support may prove crucial for Blair. It was Murdoch's media empire that helped elect Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives – and Blair himself in 1997.

Despite opposition to a number of its policies, the Labour party is expected to win the national election for the third straight time. But due to differences between the British and American political systems, this victory might not turn out to be a personal one for Blair.

On Thursday, British voters won't vote for the office of prime minister. Instead, they will vote for their local members of Parliament, and those elected will then choose the prime minister.

If the Labour party wins a majority of seats in Parliament, but its overall total is significantly lower than the number before the election, his party members could take that as a vote of no confidence in Blair and choose to replace him with his heir apparent, Gordon Brown.

Another factor to consider: Britain has three major parties, not two. If the Liberal Democrats win enough seats to deprive either the Labour party or the Conservatives of a clear majority in Parliament, the parties would have to negotiate some sort of coalition government.

As the British publication The Economist opined: "Rather than worrying about losing, Labour is fretting about the kind of victory it will win."

Blair won his first seat in Parliament in 1983, and climbed quickly to become party leader in 1995. Then in 1997, at age 43, he became not only the youngest prime minister since 1812, but also the first to reach that post without having served as a cabinet minister or even as a junior minister.

Now some pundits are predicting that Blair will prove triumphant not so much because of his own accomplishments, but due to the lackluster campaign and platform of his chief opponent, Michael Howard.

Howard has hurt his chances of victory by failing to offer a viable tax-cutting proposal and by his "appallingly hypocritical" opposition to Blair's efforts to ease universities' financial problems by allowing them to charge fees to British students, according to the Economist, which concludes, "For want of a better option, we favor another Labour victory on May 5 ... Tony Blair, for all his flaws, remains the best center-right option there is."


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However, another poll published the same day in the Daily Telegraph had Blair leading by only three percent, down one percent from the previous week. And a poll by the Guardian just 48 hours before the election showed that Blair's party's vote share in 108 key seats in...
Tuesday, 03 May 2005 12:00 AM
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