Forget about the economy. Forget about the environment. Forget about the mess that he has made of US relations with the rest of the world. The issue that is on George W. Bush’s mind is more basic: Does a leader end up paying a political price if voters think he lied his country into an unwise and unnecessary war in Iraq?
For the answer to that question, the president and his aides might want to look to Britain, where Bush’s closest comrade-in-arms before, during and since the Iraq invasion, Prime Minister Tony Blair, just took a political body blow.
In a multi-ethnic, working-class section of London that has for decades been a political stronghold for Blair’s Labour Party, voters used a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Parliament to send the prime minister a message that has shaken the British political establishment. It is a message that ought to be heard, as well, in the United States.
In the parliamentary elections of two years ago that saw Blair’s Labour Party sweep to victory across Great Britain, London’s Brent-East constituency gave the Labour Party candidate 63 percent of the vote, for a majority of 13,047 votes over his closest challenger.
In the special “by-election” held Thursday to fill the vacancy created when the area’s member of parliament died, the Labour Party candidate won only 34 percent of the vote. That 29 percent drop in support for Blair’s party cleared the way for a headline-grabbing victory by the candidate of the Liberal Democrats, a third party that opposed the Bush-Blair rush to war.
The defeat marked Labour’s first loss of a seat in a parliamentary by-election in 15 years. And the BBC described the swing by traditional Labour voters against the party as “one of the most stunning turnarounds in British electoral history.”
No one doubts that anger over Blair’s approach to the Iraq war, as well as doubts about his honesty, played a role in that turnaround.
Sarah Teather, a 29-year-old local charity worker and Liberal Democrat party activist, won the Brent-East seat after a campaign in which she said, “It has been inevitable as I have gone door-to-door in such a cosmopolitan area that the war in Iraq has come to the fore. People have said they feel let down and cheated.” Teather, who serves on the local council for the neighborhood of Islington, where Blair made his home before he moved to 10 Downing Street, criticized Labour’s increasingly conservative domestic policies, as well. But, after the votes were counted, London’s Daily Mirror newspaper argued that, “Mr Blair was skewered by an angry backlash over the war in Iraq and a collapse in public trust.”
“Labour found itself struggling against the perception that the government is untrustworthy,” observed the Guardian newspaper.
The British press, which is far more aggressive than the U.S. media, has pursued stories about inconsistencies in Blair’s arguments for going to war. That led to a parliamentary investigation of whether the prime minister and his aides “sexed up” a dossier making the case action against Iraq. (That dossier, which was released last fall, was used by the Bush administration to convince Congress to give the president the authority to attack Iraq. See “Bogus Blair, Bogus Bush” at: http://www.thenation.com/thebeat/index.mhtml?bid=1&pid=895)