Is This The Endgame For Tony Blair?

Former Labour Party boss Neil Kinnock and Former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey recently suggested that beleaguered British Prime Minister Tony Blair consider stepping aside. Their comments were seen as a sign of a possible deal clearing the way for the current Chancellor Gordon Brown to succeed Blair as Labour's leader. Meanwhile, a group of Labour backbenchers -- who voted earlier this year against government plans to increase university fees -- are calling their once-popular leader an electoral liability. Some even want Brown, not Blair, to lead them into the next general election.

Is the endgame approaching for Blair? It's too early to say. But the Prime Minister, who backed President George W. Bush fully on the Iraq war, is feeling incessant heat over his decision -- and watching his position slide in the polls. A May 11 survey by London research consultancy Populus Ltd. for The Times of London showed support for Labour trailing the Conservatives by four percentage points, a 17-year low.

"Running Scared"

Labour is bracing itself for a thrashing in local and European Parliament elections set for June 10. That vote is seen as a dry run for the next general election, expected next spring. "Blair is in a lot of trouble," says Wyn Grant, politics professor at the University of Warwick. Indeed, he adds, Labour's campaign for the June vote, in which 6,000 local and 78 European parliamentary seats are up for grabs, shows the party "is running scared."

Blair has begun to lash out. After he vowed he would avoid negative campaigning, Labour has released a nasty TV ad emphasizing low points in 62-year-old Conservative leader Michael Howard's career to the tune If You Don't Know Me By Now. (One highlight of the ad: Soaring unemployment in 1990-92 when Howard was Employment Minister.) The Prime Minister is also flip-flopping on policy. In April he reversed his earlier position and agreed to hold a referendum on the new European constitution after the next general election. This move denies the Tories a weapon against him, but it could reduce Britain's clout in the European Union if voters veto it, as current polls suggest.

These tactical moves to win votes are likely to be too little, too late for Labour to stave off defeat in June. A poor showing will fuel speculation that Blair and his "New Labour" -- as he dubbed the party when he became leader -- are running out of steam. That, in turn, could spell the worst general election results for Labour in seven years. While most observers think Labour will probably win the next national vote, the majority will likely be much slimmer than Labour's current 161 parliamentary seats. "This is the weakest position Blair has been in, but it doesn't mean it's fatal," says Michael Cox, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. Pundits speculate that Blair could step aside in favor of Brown after winning a third term.

What Blair needs now is a way to change the subject -- to get back to domestic politics and away from Iraq. But events aren't giving him the chance. Revelations that U.S. and British troops abused Iraqi prisoners have outraged the public. According to pollster NOP, 55% of Britons want their troops out of Iraq by the June 30 date to hand over power to Iraqis. With the bad news showing little sign of abating, Blair may find himself considering a hand-over date of his own.

By Kerry Capell in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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