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)
Amid the controversy over charges that Bush and Blair inflated perceived threats in order to gain support for an attack on Iraq, David Kelly, a British scientist who had provided information to journalists, committed suicide. The suicide led to a high-profile investigation of charges that the Blair government had made life “hell” for Kelly, and that in a broader sense the government had sought to punish those who questioned government claims about Iraq’s supposed stashes of weapons of mass destruction. In the course of the inquiry by Lord Brian Hutton, a respected senior jurist, Blair’s closest aide, Alastair Campbell, has been forced to resign, and Minister of Defense Geoff Hoon has become the subject of widespread speculation that he too will have to go.
The political impact of the controversy over whether Britain was “spun into war” has been devastating for Blair. His approval ratings have plummeted — according to a poll published by London’s Daily Telegraph in late August, only 22 percent of respondents said they felt Blair’s government was trustworthy.
But poll numbers can be disputed. Elections are the measures of voter sentiment that politicians take most seriously. And the Brent-East by-election was framed from the start as a test of Blair’s personal popularity and the appeal of the war that he and Bush promoted.
Teather, who will become the youngest member of Parliament, celebrated her victory by declaring,”Tony Blair, I hope that you are listening tonight. The people of Brent have spoken for the people of Britain.”
Considering the fact that Bush used Blair’s doctored dossier in his campaign to convince Congress and the American people that war was necessary, that statement might be extended. As there have been no special elections for Congress in recent months, perhaps there is room for a coalition of the willing (to ask tough questions) that would say, “George Bush, we hope you were listening Thursday night. The people of Brent East have spoken for people all over the world who believe that you and Tony Blair need to be held accountable for your war in Iraq.”
That is a theme that Democrats in Congress, and on the presidential campaign trail, need to embrace. While the debate about whether the Blair government lied Britain into war remains red hot, the discussion of Bush’s claims regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has been allowed to cool somewhat since mid-summer. When Britain’s main opposition party, the Tories, failed to challenge Blair effectively, Sarah Teather’s Liberal Democrats filled the void. Instead of complaining about the Greens and the prospect of another presidential campaign by consumer activist Ralph Nader, Democrats should fill the void. They can start by following the lead of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who charged Thursday that Bush administration officials relied on “distortion, misrepresentation, a selection of intelligence” to press their case for war. “There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically,” said Kennedy. “This whole thing was a fraud.”
As the results from across the sea attest, that is a winning political message.