Britons go to the polls May 3 to vote in local elections that will have a sizeable impact on the way that Tony Blair's ten-year premiership ends. Blair, who has been Prime Minister since May 2, 1997, has promised he will step down from the post before this year's Labour Party Conference, due in September. I've spent several weeks in the UK since early March-- and was back there again early this week. In much of the country, people just seem eager for him to go, and quickly. But he has hung on and hung on.
His decision to join President Bush in invading Iraq in 2003-- and the slavish support he has given to Bush ever since then-- are the main cause of this disaffection.
Now, Labour looks set to do very poorly in next week's local elections, and that performance is expected to bring Blair's Labour colleagues to the point where finally they tell him that-- for the sake of the party-- it is time for him to go. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown now looks more secure than ever to replace Blair as head of the party (and therefore, also of the government.)
Given the huge popular revulsion with the current situation in Iraq, Brown-- or indeed, anyone else coming in as PM in the post-Blair era-- urgently needs to position himself as significantly different from Blair on the Iraq issue, and on relations with Washington more generally. The next general elections must be held in or before 2010, so the Labour Party's next PM needs to be able to rebuild the party well before then.
That Guardian/ICM poll linked to above notes, regarding Brits' attitudes toward national governance, that:
Labour support is now at bedrock. The party has only twice scored below 30% in the Guardian/ICM series, which began in 1984. Over a quarter of the people who say they voted Labour in 2005 have switched to either the Conservatives or LibDems...
Indeed, as I noted here recently, the outcome for Labour of the May 3 elections could be even graver. That day, voters in Scotland and Wales will also be voting for representatives in the regional parliaments they each now have-- and in Scotland, there is a real chance of the Scot Nats, who have an openly secessionist platform, winning control of the Holyrood Parliament. If a velvet divorce between the two kingdoms of England and Scotland ensues, Labour might have a hard time winning in either of the two countries that emerge.
It would be ironic if Blair-- the Prime Minister who has done the best of any PM in modern times at winning a reasonable negotiated outcome to the previously debilitating Northern Ireland conflict-- ends up being remembered also as the man whose bullheadedness on Iraq helped break up the England-Scotland Union.
But what might we expect from a Prime Minister Brown regarding Iraq? So far, Brown has done very little, if anything, to tip his hand. Instead, he has remained a loyal-- indeed key-- member of Blair's cabinet, with this loyalty underpinned by the agreement the two men reached some years ago that they would "take turns" in the premiership.
Today, however, the Guardian's Patrick Wintour is reporting that Lord Ashdown, the former UN high representative to Bosnia, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British envoy to Baghdad are going to be preparing a report for Brown roughly similar to the Iraq Study Group report handed to Bush last December. (Ashdown was the leader of the UK's Liberal Democratic Party for a long time before he went to Bosnia, so he would bring a multiparty flavor to this project.)
Wintour had tracked down a speech that Greenstock made very recently in Australia, which hinted strongly at the idea of proposing a timetable for ending the occupation of Iraq.
Both Greenstock and Ashdown seem to favor a regional-conference approach to figuring out the modalities of getting the occupation forces disentangled from Iraq-- very similar to what the Iraq Study Group proposed, but probably with more of an explicitly UN flavor to it.
It is quite possible, though, that a combination of public sentiment and the demands of military planners might push Britain's next PM to pull Britain's forces out of Iraq even before there is time to comnvene and such conference...
But a lot still depends on the depth of disaffection with Blairism that is revealed at the polls next week.
(Cross-posted to Just World News.)