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Polls show dramatic turnaround in public opinion of Blair, Iraq war

GRAVESEND, England—In a visit to this picturesque town east of London in January, it was difficult to find anyone who wasn't deeply opposed to war with Iraq or wasn't angry at Prime Minister Tony Blair for leading his nation toward one.

Today, it's difficult to find anyone here who thinks the war was a mistake and that Blair was wrong.

"At the beginning I was very much against it, but as it went along I thought they had done the right thing," said Alan Kennerly, 69, a builder who was enjoying his lunch recently on a sunny bench. He was disturbed that weapons of mass destruction hadn't been found and that many Iraqi children had been wounded. But as for Blair, Kennerly said, "At the end of the day I think he's come out more on top."

Gravesend is considered a bellwether town for British political trends, and polls show that changed feelings about the war here reflect changed opinions across the United Kingdom.

Now that war has ended quickly and victoriously, the turnaround in favor of the conflict and Blair has been dramatic. The prime minister still faces unresolved war questions and daunting domestic issues, but no one is calling him Bush's poodle anymore.

In January, a poll for the ITV network showed that only 13 percent of Britons supported war without a second United Nations resolution. Another poll, in February for the Guardian newspaper, registered 52 percent opposition to the war.

The figures now have flipped. A Guardian poll in April found a record-level 63 percent support for the war; only 23 percent remained opposed. A poll for the Times of London showed that 64 percent of people now say that taking military action against Iraq was right.

Before the war, Blair's Labor Party was running nearly even in support with the Conservative Party in one poll. The new Times poll showed that Labor's support had jumped by 7 percent, again leaving the Tories in the dust, where they mostly had been since Blair's first victory in 1997. For the foreseeable future, Blair's and Labor's control of the government seems assured.

It's the "Baghdad bounce," say British commentators, who compare Blair's surge to the rush of popularity that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enjoyed in the 1983 election after she sent British forces to victory over Argentina in the Falklands War.

The Iraq war, observed Gravesend businesswoman Linda Rush, 46, has "increased Blair's standing in England. . . . I think he is a very positive, good leader."

But British voters also have turned on their great war leaders. Thatcher was forced out of power by her Conservative party in 1990, and Winston Churchill was defeated by the Labor opposition after World War II.

Although Blair has long held a reputation as Europe's hawk—which previously didn't seem to much bother British voters—the Iraq war was the most serious gamble of his six-year premiership.

As war approached, he faced a serious revolt by fellow Labor members of Parliament. It was conjectured that so many of them would support antiwar amendments in Parliament that Blair might be forced to resign. It turns out he thought that might happen, too.

In an interview published Sunday in the Sun newspaper, Blair said he had called his family together before the war to warn that he might lose his job. "I explained that this was going to be extremely difficult and it was possible the thing could go against me," he told the Sun.

Blair ultimately won a majority of Labor votes in Parliament for his pro-war position.

But the revolt by about a quarter of Labor's members of Parliament means Blair can't assume support on controversial programs, including proposals to increase university tuition and to introduce independent hospitals to the national health system.

Blair, who will turn 50 next month, also faces trouble as he tries to encourage voters to give up the pound for the euro monetary system. Ironically, newfound support for the war probably will deepen distrust of the euro, since that would mean sharing the same currency with antiwar nations France and Germany.

Despite the rosy new polls, Blair is being pounded daily in the British press with questions about Iraq's still-missing weapons of mass destruction. And support for the war doesn't necessarily translate into voter happiness over it.

It's more a "sense of relief now that the military action is over," said Chris Pond, the Labor member of Parliament from Gravesham, the borough that includes the town of Gravesend. "It wasn't the awful bloodbath people feared it might be."

Blair faces his biggest postwar test May 1, not in a poll but at the polls. That day, British voters will be asked to vote for thousands of local council members, and it's not clear that support for Blair and the war will mean that Labor candidates will carry the day.

"It's difficult to judge" how the vote will go, Pond said. "For those who don't want to vote, Iraq has given them a good excuse. For (antiwar volunteers) in the Labor Party who don't want to campaign, they've got their excuse, too."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030422 Blair poll

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Tony Blair