US, Australian Leaders Sympathetic as Blair Faces Voters

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair heads into an election Thursday with the implied blessings of his two key Iraq war allies, despite the fact that their political parties have long and strong links with Blair's Conservative opponents.

Polls point to a victory for Blair's Labor Party, although probably with a reduced majority in the House of Commons.

Blair's campaign focused on economic issues but ran into severe flak in the latter stages over Iraq, with the Conservative Party saying he had lied about the legal advice he received shortly before going to war.

Britain supported the U.S.-led war politically and with troops on the ground, while Australia was a third, smaller partner in the military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

Like Blair, both President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard were targeted at home by strong anti-war campaigns.

But unlike Bush and Howard - both of whom were re-elected late last year -- much of the anti-war opposition faced by Blair came from within his own center-left party, while his Conservative (Tory) rivals supported the war -- although not his handling of it.

Neither Bush nor Howard have come out openly in support of Blair, but neither have they hidden their admiration and sympathy for him.

Last month, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told a press briefing that Blair "has been a good friend of the president and a strong ally in the war on terrorism and we appreciate the partnership that we have with Prime Minister Blair and his government."

McClellan said later: "We don't get involved in the internal politics or elections of other countries by endorsing specific candidates."

Political analysts in the UK say Bush is aware that his endorsement of Blair would not help a British campaign already characterized by allegations that the Labor leader is a "lap dog" of the American president.

The Republic Party has historic links with the Tories, while the Democrat-Labor relationship runs deep - a situation underscored when former President Clinton made a big-screen appearance supporting Blair at a Labor Party meeting in London last month.

But Republican-Tory ties were seen to be under strain last year when it emerged that Bush advisor Karl Rove had barred Conservative leader Michael Howard - no relation to the Australian leader - from visiting the White House because of his attacks on Blair over the war.

Michael Howard issued a statement last August saying: "If some people in the White House, in their desire to protect Mr. Blair, think I am too tough on Mr. Blair or too critical of him, they are entitled to their opinion. But I shall continue to do my job as I see fit."


In Australia, Prime Minister Howard's affinity for Blair has also long been evident.

Last October he confessed himself to be "somewhat conflicted when it comes to British politics."

"My natural affections and allegiances are with the Conservative Party and I'd like to see a Conservative government in Britain again," he told a press conference just after his own election victory.

"On the other hand, I greatly admire Tony Blair," he continued. "I think he was very gutsy over Iraq. He took on his own party ... I've formed quite a friendship with him and I like him a lot."

This week, Howard's press office accidentally sent a newspaper the transcript of an off-the-record part of an interview in which the prime minister was quoted as saying it was hard to see Blair being defeated, and that he did not think the Tories had "done enough spadework" to win.

Howard's spokeswoman declined to release the transcript Thursday, but said the prime minister had been misquoted.

But the journalist to whom the transcript had originally been sent told Cybercast News Service the press office had not contested the quotes as much as the perception that he was backing Blair.

"He hadn't said that he hoped Tony Blair would be re-elected, merely that he thought Tony Blair would be re-elected," the journalist said.

Like the Republicans, Howard's conservative Liberal Party has historical links to the British Conservatives, and he allowed the architect of his own election victories, Australian polling guru and strategist Lynton Crosby, to head up the Tories election campaign.

Nonetheless, Howard's kinship with Blair is both real and highly unusual, an Australian political scientist said Thursday.

"I suspect there is much more sympathy for Blair than any Australian Liberal prime minister has ever had for the British Labor Party," said Prof. John Warhurst of the Australian National University.

"There's no precedent I can think of [in British-Australian politics]."

Speaking from Canberra, Warhurst said the "fascinating" situation was clearly attributable to the existence of the "coalition of the willing."

"I think perhaps fighting a war does bring governments closer to one another than they would ever be in peacetime."

Although the "clash with the traditional party alignment" was abnormal, it was also not unexpected that the international security situation had brought Blair, Bush and Howard closer together, he said.

"The Iraq war and the war against terror have led to more frequent contact. They're on the same side, fighting the same sort of domestic critics."

Warhurst also noted similarities in the opposition the three have had to face.

"Some of the similar criticisms that are being made of Blair about trust and lying over Iraq and deceiving the people have also been made about Bush and Howard - without apparent effect [in the case of the U.S. and Australian elections.]"

When Howard was confronted during his campaign on the issue of personal trust, he reframed the debate by saying his government could be trusted on the basis of its economic record, Warhurst recalled.

Blair had done exactly the same thing. "When challenged on the people's trust, Blair's answer was: "Trust me to deliver a good economy; that's what counts.' There were tremendous echoes of the Australian election campaign."

'No poster boy'

Many American conservatives admire Blair for supporting the U.S. before, during and since the war - despite disapproval for some of his domestic and European policies.

A Massachusetts man, Jon Sanford, set up a website in 2003 giving Americans the opportunity to thank Blair for sending troops to fight alongside U.S. forces in Iraq.

By Thursday, more than 72,000 Americans had sent messages of thanks to Blair via the website, which says it mails printouts of the messages regularly to Downing Street.

Some British Conservatives are bemused by the admiration Blair generates among conservatives on the other side of the Atlantic.

"The high tax, anti-family Mr. Blair shouldn't be a poster boy for U.S. Republicans," Tory activist Tim Montgomerie wrote in a recent online open letter to American conservatives entitled "You don't know Tony Blair like we do."

Montgomerie outlined a number of Blair policies likely to rile conservatives, and pointed out in conclusion that "the White House should remember that it was Britain's Tories who ensured parliamentary passage of the Iraq war motion."

"Without Tory support a rebellion by Tony Blair's backbench MPs may have scuppered British participation in the liberation of Iraq," he said.

Commenting on the open letter, "Thank You Tony" website founder Sanford said he could understand Montgomerie's perspective.

"Our appreciation stems from a perception that Mr. Blair 'got' the big issue that now confronts both America and Western Europe. That issue is global terrorism."

"We are impressed by his fortitude and conviction," Sanford said. "And we appreciate having the strong and capable British armed forces working beside us."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow