As the blond, middle-aged woman was walking home one chilly evening recently in Lancaster, 330 km northwest of London, she saw Anne Sacks, the Labour candidate for Parliament, red rosette on her coat, doorstepping her neighbor. Not eager to hear another election sales pitch, she quickly opened her door, stepped inside, turned toward Sacks and smiled, saying: "I think Blair's a lying bastard. But I don't see the point of voting any other way, really." With another big smile, she closed the door.
If opinion polls are right, this encounter is a good proxy for the collective judgment millions of Britons will make this Thursday. That's when they decide whether to return Prime Minister Tony Blair for a third consecutive term in office, unprecedented for his Labour Party. And the signs are that they will do it, almost in spite of themselves.
On most counts, Blair has made a success of his first two terms in office. Britain is prosperous; employment rates are historically high and interest rates historically low. Only 10% of voters cite the economy as a worry. The country's hospitals and schools are starting to improve as Labour pledged when the party swept to power in 1997 and was re-elected in 2001. No great crises loom. Living standards have overtaken those in France, Germany and Japan, and a country whose gastronomy used to be the punch line to a bad joke now has wall-to-wall celebrity chefs and incroyable! the world's best restaurant.
The trouble for Blair, and for Labour, is that Britain's more affluent, sophisticated citizens have become political picky eaters. And they're fed up with the man in charge, angry that Blair took the country to war in Iraq for reasons many think he knowingly oversold. Last week, their ire was revived when a partial leak prompted the government to publish the Attorney General's 2003 opinion on the legality of the invasion, a document it had stubbornly refused to release for the past two years.
The Attorney General concluded that it would be legitimate to invade without a second U.N. resolution, but his assessment contained many caveats and worries that Blair's public statements glided over at the time. For many, the memo confirmed suspicions that the Prime Minister maneuvered things to keep the Cabinet, Parliament and the public in the dark. Conservative leader Michael Howard said bluntly that Blair "has told lies to win elections. On the one thing on which he has taken a stand, which is taking us to war, he didn't even tell the truth on that." Blair is a "faker who has gone wrong," Howard told Time.