Blair's popularity boosted in attacks' aftermath
Near highest level since Iraq invasion

(Gold9472: Who benefits...)

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff | August 13, 2005

LONDON -- Just three months ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain appeared to be in the sunset of his career. Opposition to the Iraq war ravaged his popularity. He won reelection in May, but his party suffered such a loss in parliamentary seats that rivals called for him to step down. Newspapers predicted he would have difficulty finishing his third term.

But after the terrorist attacks on London's transit system in July, Blair's ratings have jumped to nearly their highest levels since the invasion of Iraq, even as polls indicate that a majority of British people say they believe the Iraq war made London more vulnerable.

''The country has now fallen back in love with the man who knows how to lead in a crisis," gushed the Western Mail & South Wales Echo, a Welsh newspaper.

''What it has done here, of course, is to make him as powerful as he has ever been at any time since he became prime minister nine years ago," said Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics. ''He is now seen as a dominant figure, whereas during the election he looked like a liability."

According to a poll done by the independent research firm Populus and The Times newspaper, nearly a third of all voters questioned in July said Blair should reconsider his decision to step down as prime minister before the next election. In June, before the attacks, half of all voters polled said he should stand down now or by the end of next year. That number dropped to two-fifths in the July poll.

Another poll conducted by Market & Opinion Research International, an independently owned research company in Britain, indicated 44 percent of the public said they are satisfied with Blair, up from 39 percent in June and 33 percent in the beginning of the year. Forty-seven percent of all those polled in July said they were dissatisfied with Blair, down from 52 percent in June and 58 percent in January.

The renewed enthusiasm for his leadership could give Blair an opening to push through or make permanent controversial counterterrorism measures that he has long supported, such as expanded powers of deportation and the ability to place people under house arrest without a trial if they cannot be sent back to their home countries. But the new atmosphere of tension in the country has Blair walking a tightrope between competing views of how to handle the threat, specialists say.

In recent days, Blair has caught criticism from both flanks, as liberals attack him for the tough measures they feel will jeopardize civil liberties and as conservatives attack him for not moving swiftly enough against extremists who have long found a haven in the country.

On Aug. 5, in a speech introducing a package of counterterrorism proposals, Blair said that those who glorify terrorism have no place in the United Kingdom and that he would shut down mosques and other places of worship that encourage violence. The speech captured the public mood perfectly, in typical Blair style, just as his speech after Princess Diana died had hit an emotional home run with the British public, Travers said.

''He's got this incredible knack to understand what the body temperature of Britain is," Travers said.

He is ''not nearly so adept at delivering consistent solutions." On Thursday, liberals expressed outrage when Blair's government arrested 10 alleged foreign extremists who have lived in Britain for years, and announced plans to deport them without hearings.

''Mr. Blair and the government are riding on this climate of fear," said Muhammad Abul Kalam, 25, an education outreach worker based in London. ''We mustn't use these feelings to relinquish our values and our traditions."

But Paul Whiteley, a professor at the University of Essex who heads the British Election Study, said Blair's tough talk of cracking down on Muslim extremists will go down well in ''the barrooms of middle England," outside the liberal metropolitan areas. ''There is a natural rally around the flag, as in America" after the Sept. 11 attacks, Whiteley said. ''But if [a terrorist attack] were to happen again, I think the rally effect which we have observed in the polls would start to disappear."

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.