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Britons’ Doubts Growing About Blair

Times Staff Writer

It was a race that could have been won. Should have been won. With a growing immigrant population, mixed income groups, blocks of public housing next to upscale new coffee shops and a location along the Thames as it snakes westward out of the city, the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham has been a Labor Party stronghold for much of the last 40 years.

Schools in its eclectic neighborhoods cater to students who speak more than 130 languages. The British Broadcasting Corp. has its headquarters here, and the Labor-run local council has built public housing, slashed crime rates, cut fees for services to the elderly and helped foster improvements in school test scores.

To no avail. Lashed by the coattails of a national Labor Party government in freefall, the Labor councilors of Hammersmith & Fulham got trounced in this month’s local elections, retaining only 13 of 46 seats, and handed the Conservatives their first overall majority here since 1968.

Similar results across England, with a loss of 319 council seats, are an urgent warning bell for Tony Blair, who had been poised to become the longest-serving Labor prime minister in British history. The charismatic leader is fighting back a revolt within his party and, even more worrying, growing doubts across the country about his vision of a union between a nurturing state and private-sector-style management.

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“Tony Blair has become like [former Conservative Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher was at the end of her reign,” said Kathy Hutchinson, a 58-year-old maternity nurse, who was having coffee one recent afternoon in the bustling north end of the borough. “He thinks he’s bigger than anyone else, and people are turning back to the Conservatives, because there’s not a lot else to vote for, really.”

It has been what some described as a “perfect storm” month of scandals and political thunder bursts followed by the reshuffling of half of Blair’s government, and it only worsened the deep split in his party that opened up over the war in Iraq.

Now, Blair’s departure has become not a question of if, but when.

The British media reported over the weekend that Blair told members of his Cabinet about his plans to step down by July 2007. Blair may be lucky to hang on that long before handing power to Gordon Brown, the ambitious chancellor of the exchequer, recognized for the moment as the obvious successor to the Labor throne.

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Brown is popular among the London intelligentsia, but nationally he has worse poll numbers than Blair against the Conservatives -- all the more reason, to many Laborites, that Blair must step aside and allow his onetime ally to build a sheen in the premiership before the next general election.

“We have a prime minister who says he will not fight the next election and everyone recognizes has done a very, very good job,” Brown said recently. “He has also said that he wants a stable and orderly transition and that he wants the chance to be able to organize that.”

Brown so far has shunned an open challenge, but dozens of Labor members of Parliament have circulated a letter demanding a timetable for a new Labor leadership’s entrance into the spotlight. The sense that time is running out was fueled by a pair of opinion polls that showed Labor with its lowest ratings since 1992. Blair’s own approval, in one Daily Telegraph poll, fell to 26%.

The Conservatives have been having a field day. The party’s youthful new leader, David Cameron, recently launched a rollicking attack in the House of Commons that was so funny and relentless that even some of Blair’s allies couldn’t help smiling. Blair, never one to back off from a political dogfight, for once was caught without rejoinders. The Guardian called it “a turning point, the moment when the young pretender asserts his authority over the aging monarch.”

Here in Hammersmith & Fulham, longtime Blair loyalists such as Stephen Burke, the once-popular Labor council chairman who lost his seat in the recent elections after 10 years in office, are having doubts.

“I’ve always seen Tony Blair as an asset. He’s won three general elections,” Burke said. “But this election was the first time when I began to wonder whether that asset was beginning to wane.”

This small, densely populated borough on the western edge of inner London has slipped out of Labor’s grasp in part because of demographics and simple politics. The tightly clustered Victorian-era row houses are getting new hardwood floors, revamped lofts and selling for $1.5 million and up. Young professional couples are moving in with little appreciation for Labor’s spending on schools and elder care.

In the north-end neighborhoods -- a panorama of immigrant families, public housing blocks and secondhand shops -- Labor didn’t do nearly as good a job of getting out the vote as the Tories did.

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In part, analysts say, Blair is the victim of the popular malaise that sets in with any government that is approaching a decade in power.

“The British public will only tolerate a political leader for, absolute tops, seven or eight years. And after that, they become restless, tired, miserable and want a change,” said Tony Travers, a researcher at the London School of Economics. “Blair at nine years is well into extra time, as they say in British football.”

But there’s more to the story, and it has beset Blair’s government across Britain: a growing sense that government has failed to deliver on its pledge to turn around chronically ailing institutions such as the National Health Service and the schools through cash infusions and better management.

The crisis in health reform got so bad that Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was heckled at a nurses conference last month as she tried to justify major spending cuts and as many as 100,000 layoffs that would accompany the government’s new market-oriented healthcare model.

In Hammersmith & Fulham, the Conservatives pointed out at every opportunity that residents of an adjoining Tory-led borough were paying a little more than half as much in local council taxes.

“We have a major teaching hospital in our borough under threat of closure or serious downsizing. They’ve hired hundreds of people in the last few years, and they’re running the second-highest deficit in the country,” said Stephen Greenhalgh, the Conservative Party’s new council leader in Hammersmith & Fulham.

“Our secondary schools, they’re officially failing,” he said. “People want to see that all this money they’re spending is resulting in either a visible improvement, or as they say, give us some of that money back.”

Hutchinson, the nurse, said: “Just traveling on the Tube now is 3 quid [$5.65]. Gas and electric are up. Our council tax has gone up. All of this adds up, and frankly, people are just disillusioned.”

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Through it all, Blair has sought to push forward like the bow of a ship in an oil slick. Undaunted, he managed to patch together a long-sought agreement with Brown over pension overhaul, and he challenged Cameron to debate him on policy rather than politics.

“To state a timetable [for stepping down] now would simply paralyze the proper working of government, put at risk the necessary changes we are making for Britain and therefore damage the country,” Blair said.

Labor leaders warned that the Conservatives elected in Hammersmith & Fulham and elsewhere, with their pledges to cut local taxes, would undermine what they’ve tried to achieve.

“They may have given Tony Blair a bloody nose, but it’s a short-term bloody nose, because the consequence of the borough going Conservative will be cuts in public services, beginning next year,” predicted Burke, the outgoing Labor councilor. “It may be a short-term gain, but in the longer term, the pain is going to be horrendous.”

But will it? One of Blair’s biggest problems is designating clear enemy territory.

Cameron, 39, has seized on traditional Labor issues such as the environment -- the Blair camp quickly countered that the Tory leader had a driver trailing him with his briefcase and shoes on his mountain bike ride to work -- and has moved to occupy the center on other issues.

Cameron has signaled that he would put economic stability before tax cuts, welcome more women and ethnic minorities as candidates (one of his top party lieutenants is a lesbian) and evaluate economic programs not just by how they help the rich, but also how they help those on the poorest end of the economic scale.

“The great, massive advantage the Labor Party always had was, no matter how unpopular they were, the alternatives always appeared even worse. Now, we’ve got this Kennedy-like figure in Dave Cameron who provides a credible alternative,” said Labor Parliament Deputy Stephen Pound, a steadfast Blair supporter.

“The point is, we’re in an era of pick-and-mix consumer politics, where people are making decisions not on the basis of tribal loyalty, as was once the case, but very much from a consumer point of view -- who can do the best job for them?”


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