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Political Infighting in Ruling Party Grips Britain

  • Gary Thomas

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's pledge to step down within one year has failed to dampen political infighting within his Labor Party. The prime minister has suffered a sharp decline in popularity, which has raised concern within his party.

If Tony Blair had hoped that by promising a timeframe in which to depart, he could douse the political firestorm over his leadership of the Labor Party, he was wrong.

Cracks continued to appear in Labor Party ranks Friday. In an interview with a London newspaper, former Home Secretary Charles Clarke lashed out at Chancellor Gordon Brown, the frontrunner to succeed Blair as Labor Party chief and, thus, prime minister, for the political infighting. He called Brown's behavior "absolutely stupid."

A Labor member of parliament, John Smith, said Blair's pledge to leave within a year was insufficient.

"Quite frankly, I think the prime minister's position is now untenable, and he will have to go sooner rather than later," he said.

Minister for Constitutional Affairs Harriet Harman said the infighting only helps the opposition Conservative Party, and had some blunt words for her colleagues.

"Well, I'm very concerned about the situation today and, quite frankly, really angry. And I really think that everyone should shut up now," she said.

Tony Blair is credited with revamping the party. In what he termed New Labor, he moved it away from its socialist roots to the political center, and led it to victory in 1997, when he became prime minister. But his once bright political star has faded, and recent polls show Labor lagging behind the Conservatives.

Mark Fuller, an analyst and communications director of the London research institute, Demos, says many Labor members feel that, after nine years, it is time for a change of leadership.

"People have just come to realize that the prime minister's time has come, and, for various reasons, he's lost a lot of authority and a lot of political capital, and has to step down, but it has to happen in - [and] it's a phrase that's been used so much in the last year or so - an orderly way, so there is an orderly transition to the next leader," he said.

Dana Allin, a research fellow in transAtlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says Blair's close relationship with President Bush and unwavering support for the Iraq war cost the prime minister a great deal of that political capital.

"George W. Bush is toxically unpopular in Britain, as in much of the rest of Europe. There's just no question about that. And, so, Tony Blair's rather close relationship with him is not a political plus for him in Britain," he said.

British bookmakers, who will give odds on almost anything, are already taking bets on when Blair will actually leave, with favored odds now saying he will depart before the end of this year. Gordon Brown remains the frontrunner to succeed Blair, but bookmakers' odds are not as favorable to him as those given prior to the current infighting.

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