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The countdown has begun to Tony Blair's High Noon. On Jan. 27, the House of Commons will vote on the Prime Minister's controversial proposal to nearly triple university fees, to about $5,400 a year. On Jan. 28, Brian Hutton, a respected senior judge, will release the report of his investigation into the death of weapons expert David Kelly. The government scientist killed himself last summer when he faced public scrutiny after being exposed as the source of a BBC story accusing 10 Downing St. of "sexing up" a British intelligence report on the dangers posed by Iraq.
It would be hard to overstate the perils of this trial by fire. The Prime Minister has no control over Hutton, who could force Blair's resignation if he singles him out for responsibility for Kelly's death. Insiders say a defeat over tuition fees would not force Blair to resign, but a loss would leave him wounded, unable to control his own party.
Yet the hunch among insiders is that Blair may dodge these two bullets. If so, he or at least his Labour Party would have a good shot at staying in power through the next election, expected in 2005. Taking a pummeling at midterm is not unusual. Margaret Thatcher was highly unpopular at times, but she was in power for 11 years. "Blair will probably never be as popular or trusted as [he was] in the first two or three years," says Peter Kellner, chairman of pollsters YouGov. "But that isn't the same as saying he is an electoral liability."Payback for Iraq?
Blair is gaining ground in the battle over university fees. Government concessions such as boosting financial aid for students from poor families has changed the minds of some of the 100 or more Labour MPs threatening to vote against the measure. Revelations that some of those opposing the tuition bill were more interested in punishing Blair for the Iraq war than in protecting students have also helped him. Still, the vote could be close, and Blair may need a Tory or two to give him the winning margin.
No one but Hutton seems to know what the report on Kelly's death will say. But the betting is that the judge will try to avoid being the instrument for deposing the country's top elected official. He is more likely, observers think, to blast smaller fry -- Downing Street press officials, the BBC, and, possibly, Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon.
Even if Blair survives his Jan. 27-28 ordeal, he isn't likely to recreate his role as the walk-on-water wonder of his early years. His many critics on the Labour back benches are no longer afraid to challenge him, and he has lost the huge lead he long enjoyed over the opposition Tories. YouGov's latest survey found the Tories leading Labour 39% to 38%. Having a credible new leader, Michael Howard, after two seemingly unelectable predecessors has elevated Conservative prospects.
Yet Blair still has some strong cards to carry into the next election. Britain's economy has grown every quarter since Labour was elected in early 1997. Labour "has kept everything on an even keel," says Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson. Many voters are sitting on big gains from the appreciation of their houses. They may be angry about rising tuition fees or the Iraq war. But they will think twice about changing horses. Don't count Blair out yet. By Stanley Reed in London EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady