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Analysis of Tony Blair's Address Before House

Aired July 17, 2003 - 20:32   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: British Prime Minister Tony Blair received a rare honor today as he addressed a joint meeting of Congress. The warm reception was something of a change of pace for Mr. Blair. His approval rating is at just 39 percent, well below that of President Bush. And some members of Blair's own party are even calling for his resignation.

CLARE SHORT, FMR. BRITISH CABINET MEMBER: The question for our government is whether Tony Blair will still be the leader of the Labor Party when we go into the election or whether his credibility would be so damaged that the party decides -- he decides to step down and we get another leader before we go to that election. I think his credibility is very severely damaged and I think it would be in the interest of him and the government for him to step down in a voluntary way.


ZAHN: And I'm joined now by two guests. Warren Hogue is the London bureau chief of "the New York Times". Sorry to have you up so late, but we appreciate it anyway. And Nick Bryant, a correspondent for the BBC, joins me from Washington, Welcome.

Warren, how do you explain why the prime minister's popularity has taken such a beating while the president's approval rating has not dropped? We actually have something, I guess, that came out of "London Times" where the question was posed, I wouldn't trust him further than I could throw him, 54 percent agreed, 41 percent disagreed. What do you make of this?

WARREN HOGUE, LONDON BUREAU CHIEF "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It has to do with the weapons, Paula. The prime minister based his entire justification for the war on the presence of weapons of mass destruction and the imminent threat that they would get into the hands of terrorists. So the missing weapons are a bigger problem for him than they are for President Bush, who gave a series of reasons, ranging from regime change to just getting rid of a tyrant as reasons to go to war. And the American public has largely accepted that, whereas the British public is demanding proof that the intelligence was right and that the weapons were really there, because that was the case that Prime Minister Blair built.

ZAHN: And, Nick, how big of a problem is the perception for the prime minister that he's often lampooned in British newspapers as President Bush's poodle? NICK BRYANT, BBC CORRESPONDENT: It's a huge problem for him. And perverse though this sounds, Paula, the fact that his speech before Congress today was interrupted 17 times by standing ovations will not go down very well with the domestic audience at home. He may have appeared like a giant when he was in the House of Representatives, but there are many people, indeed probably a majority of people in Britain, who regard him as Mr. Bush's poodle.

They're deeply uneasy about his relationship with the president. They're deeply uneasy about his steadfast support for the war on terrorism, wherever it seems to lead. And it's really damaged him at home. I think as Warren was saying his failure to find weapons of mass destruction three months after the war -- after the liberation of Baghdad -- has caused him really big political problems at home, because it has stripped away one thing he has built up over the last few years and that's a kind of bond of trust with the British people. That's looking pretty shaky right now.

ZAHN: And Warren, as you see it, is there any way to win that back short of finding weapons of mass destruction?

HOGUE: I think there is. It looks increasingly like he's going to back off the weapons of mass destruction argument. The morning papers, which were already out here in London, are all picking up the line he said tonight at the joint session, that the -- that Britain and the U.S. would be forgiven even if weapons were not discovered, because history would say it was a good thing to have gotten rid of Saddam. That's viewed here as Blair backing off something that he had been insistent about even as recently as last week, i.e. that they really would find weapons.

So, I think he already is moving into a posture where he's going to try to redeem himself even in the absence of finding weapons. And Let me say one final thing, he has been under great pressure before. And he's at his best when he's facing down opponents. And so he might come back in the fall after what's going to be rather a difficult summer for him.

ZAHN: And, Nick, you get the final word tonight on just reaction to the kind of reception the prime minister got today in Congress.

BRYANT: Well, it was extraordinary. He obviously gets a much better reception when he comes to Congress than he does in Parliament. You've probably seen the prime minister questioned when he gets jeering, not only from his political opponents, but from people within his own party. Now, that's a problem for Tony Blair. His party has never really been in love with him. But the thing that will probably keep him in office and protect him is the fact that he's won them two elections in a row.

He's a very successful politician when he does go before the British people. And for that reason the Labor Party is very reluctant to jettison him even though a lot of people in the Labor Party, the party that he rules, have never really expressed the affection toward him he got in Congress today. ZAHN: Nick Bryant, thanks for joining us at this civil hour. Warren Hogue, thanks for joining us at this uncivil hour. We owe you one for keeping you up until the wee hours of the morning Britain time.

HOGUE: Not a problem.

ZAHN: Thank you both.


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