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Britain: Is Tony Blair Neglecting the Home Front?

Never has a British Prime Minister been more popular. Tony Blair's tough response to the September 11 attacks in the U.S. and his diplomatic efforts to build an international coalition to fight terrorism have gone down well with the British electorate. An Oct. 12 poll conducted by The Guardian newspaper gave Blair an approval rating of 88%--on par with Winston Churchill's in World War II and greater than Margaret Thatcher's in the Falklands war.

Yet the ambitious PM may be in danger of spreading himself too thin. Since September 11, Blair has engaged in international diplomacy at a breakneck pace, jetting from London to Oman to Cairo and back to London to meet with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat on Oct. 15. But even as Blair revels in his rising stature as global statesman, severe problems are beckoning at home. In running for reelection to a second term last June, Blair staked his reputation on improving the country's education, health, and transportation systems, and securing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. "Blair could face a backlash if domestic issues aren't addressed properly and quickly," warns Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, a business lobby. "He has gone out too far on a limb," adds the chairman of a leading British media company. "History has shown us that there are often Prime Ministers and Presidents who are successful abroad but disastrous at home."

For now, no opposition politicians or rivals in his Labour Party are openly criticizing Blair. But business leaders and political analysts are getting worried that the PM simply won't have the time and resources to deal with a pressing domestic agenda as well as help rebuild Afghanistan, fight terrorism, and push for peace in the Middle East. Test scores in Britain's national school system are plunging, and qualified teachers are quitting. Meanwhile, the peace process in Northern Ireland is collapsing as Unionist ministers threaten to resign over the Irish Republican Army's failure to disarm.

Perhaps most significant, the National Health Service remains underfunded and overburdened. A growing number of Britons are going to Europe for treatment rather than waiting months or years at home. Health spending is rising 6% a year. With the economy slowing--gross domestic product growth is expected to be 2.1% this year, vs. 2.9% in 2000--government revenues are on the decline. So maintaining health spending is likely to require an unpopular tax increase, analysts say. In an Oct. 16 speech, Blair indicated tax hikes should be expected.

Meanwhile, the Labour government has not inspired confidence with the way it has handled another public service--the railways. On Oct. 7, the government suddenly pulled the plug on Railtrack PLC, the privatized owner of Britain's railway infrastructure, leaving the company's 250,000 shareholders out of pocket. That is raising questions about the viability of Blair's plans for public-private partnerships to fix other services like the London Underground.

As his stature rises on the international scene, Blair's smartest move would be to use his newly enhanced clout to make headway on domestic issues. The first sign he might try to do that came on Oct. 2, when he signaled for the first time his willingness to hold a referendum on Britain's joining Europe's single currency if the country is ready economically. The trouble is that 61% of British voters still oppose using the euro, and persuading them to change their minds won't be easy.

So Blair would do better to work on the tougher nitty-gritty issues, such as public services, first. When the shooting stops, he'll still have to run Britain. And its problems are mounting every day. The assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi on Oct. 17 is just one indication of how difficult it is going to be for the Bush Administration to hold together its international coalition to fight terrorism. The U.S. had hoped to reduce Israeli-Palestinian violence and even restart peace talks between the two sides. But with passions running high, gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) shot and killed the minister in revenge for the Israeli killing of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who blamed Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat for the killing and called it the beginning of a "new era," is unlikely to refrain from harsh retaliation. Ironically, Ze'evi, a hardliner, was in the process of leaving Sharon's government to protest its being too soft on the Palestinians.

Israel and the Palestinians aren't the only regional players who will be tough to keep in line. Egypt has been warning the U.S. not to widen the campaign to Iraq or other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable about the U.S. bombing of a Muslim country, Afghanistan, and has offered the U.S. only limited cooperation.

Now, a major escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence will add tremendously to the tension. Mideast peace seems further away than ever.

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