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Tuesday, May 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The last hurrah for Tony Blair

Los Angeles Times

LONDON — With two days to go in the election that he says will be his last hurrah as prime minister, Tony Blair is looking rather wan. His eyes are ringed from too little sleep, his middle is starting to bulge, and the lines on his forehead have deepened.

The earnest words tumble nimbly from his lips, but the magic is not apparent. People say they will vote for him and his Labor Party over his hapless opponents, but many also say they no longer believe his explanations, justifications and promises after the experience of the last eight years.

"There is no alternative (alas)," reads the cover of the election-week edition of the Economist magazine, over a picture of a smiling, somewhat vacant-looking Blair.

For a candidate who is on course to be re-elected to a third straight term Thursday and who, at 51, is arguably the most successful Labor politician ever, Blair is emerging from a grueling campaign as something of a loser.

In interviews, he has conceded that his personal popularity is down. As a result, he is campaigning more alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, 54, who is seen as Blair's heir apparent at the helm of the Labor Party.

As young members of Parliament, Blair and Brown helped reshape and modernize the Labor Party. As prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer — the equivalent of the U.S. Treasury secretary — for the past eight years, they have governed under an unusual agreement that has given Brown virtual autonomy with respect to economic policy.

It is in part the economic record Brown has compiled that gives Blair, politically humbled over his alliance with President Bush on Iraq, the prospect of seeing Labor retain its majority in the next Parliament.

Brown's reward is likely to be ascension to prime minister when Blair steps aside sometime in a third term. Twice last week, Blair virtually designated him his successor.

With a big majority in Parliament, Blair has been able to almost double spending on education and the National Health Service, hire more police and forge a peace deal for Northern Ireland. With finance minister Brown, he is presiding over a stable economy that is humming along nicely. And, although the war in Iraq was unpopular, he has steered Britain through what appears to be the worst of it, with two British deaths there in the past two months.

Nevertheless, the criticism that Blair is too slippery and too glib has stuck. An almost palpable sense of betrayal often brings not only anger but also hurt during the Blair campaign's frequent town-hall meetings with the electorate that have been dubbed "masochism" sessions.

Late last week, coming on for one of his ritual grillings, this time at the BBC television program "Question Time," the audience booed when he appeared, and then became even more hostile.

"That is a lie! You lied to this country, and that is why we can't support you!" shouted one young man, accusing Blair of exaggerating the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's threat to world peace.

"What new stealth taxes do you intend to introduce first?" asked another.

"Mr. Blair, I think you're very lucky that we have a weak opposition at the moment," said a third, in possibly the kindest remark of the half-hour session.

"Right, I take [it] that's not a compliment," a perspiring Blair answered meekly.

In his pour-his-heart-out style, Blair readily admits that the wear and tear on him has been "relentless." His frustration crept in during a heated news conference last week in the surreally futuristic environs of London's Bloomberg financial-news headquarters, as he grappled for what must have been the thousandth time with whether he'd shaved the truth about Iraq.

"Whatever I say, I will never, ever convince some people who have been opposed to this war," Blair said. "People can continue to frame this in terms of my integrity, but it was about a decision; I took it. I have to live with the consequences of it. I don't regret it. I cannot apologize. I tried very hard to find a middle way through, but I could not get it."

During the last week of the campaign, his chief opponents, Conservative leader Michael Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, have tried to bring the discussion back to the Iraq war, while Blair would like to talk about the economy and plans for the future. Those include mounting an international effort against global warming and raising foreign assistance to Africa, while continuing improvements in health care and education in Britain.

After hundreds of hours of television coverage and forests of newspaper articles, the campaign for Britain's next government remains pretty much where it began April 11: with Labor in front, despite the widespread disenchantment with Blair.

With the days dwindling, Howard has turned to smacking at Blair's integrity. "I think I am entitled to say character and trust are issues and the prime minister has not told us the truth," he said.

But this tactic didn't appear to be working either. Although a poll in the Daily Telegraph on Friday said that 58 percent of respondents agreed with Howard that Blair was "telling lies" to win, 51 percent said the same thing of Howard himself.

For now, the Conservatives' best hopes rest on turning their loyalists out to vote at a greater rate than the complacent Laborites, a strategy boosted by a survey for the Financial Times two weeks ago that showed Labor's lead among those "certain" to vote at only 2 percentage points. A week earlier, it was 7 percentage points, the paper said.

Some of the information on Gordon Brown is from The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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