Polls: Blair in Slump After Protests

Sunday, September 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Tony Blair's summertime slump may be turning into an autumn of discontent.

New polls in two British newspapers suggested his Labor Party's approval rating has dropped to the level of the opposition Conservatives for the first time since 1992.

Seizing on the survey results, Conservative leader William Hague told Britain's GMTV on Sunday that Blair's government was ``paying the price for arrogance and complacency and broken promises.''

Top government officials, though, suggested the show of disapproval was probably temporary. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon called it a ``short-term knock in the opinion polls.''

``I will be much more interested in the polls in a month's time,'' he told GMTV. ``If the polls are still as bad as that then, we will clearly have a problem.''

The drop in popularity for Blair's party follows a week of fuel protests that dried up gasoline pumps across Britain, disrupting schools, transport and business. The protests — and a groundswell of public resentment over Britain's sky-high fuel prices — appeared to catch the prime minister off-guard.

The fuel flap marked the latest erosion of the suave, confident public image the prime minister enjoyed after his landslide election win three years ago.

In July, Blair's 16-year-old son was arrested for being drunk in public, shortly after the prime minister had floated the idea of on-the-spot fines for drunken hooligans. In June, he was booed and heckled during a speech to a normally placid and cordial audience, the Women's Institute. And in May, Londoners snubbed Blair by electing Ken Livingstone as mayor despite the prime minister's vociferous opposition.

A poll published in The News of The World, a Sunday tabloid, said 38 percent of those asked would vote for the Conservatives, and 36 percent would vote Labor if there were an election now. The poll of 1,006 British adults, taken Thursday and Friday by Market and Opinion Research International, had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

An NOP poll published in The Sunday Times found support among 1,002 interviewees was tied at 37 percent for both parties. The margin of error for the poll, taken Thursday through Friday, was 3 percentage points.

Blair's personal reputation appeared also to be hurt. Of those polled by NOP, 73 percent described him as ``out of touch and arrogant,'' the newspaper said.

The government had already seen its popularity slide somewhat since Blair's sweeping 1997 election victory, when Labor won a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. Even so, Labor had enjoyed an unbroken lead in the opinion polls since the months following the 1992 general election victory of Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

The protests that left filling stations empty around the country were spurred by demands for a fuel tax cut. Britain's fuel prices are the highest in Europe, and taxes account for three-quarters of the pump price.

Blair refused any tax concessions, and said his decision was a victory for democratic government. But analysts said he risked looking out of touch with public sentiment.

An overwhelming 85 percent of those polled by NOP wanted fuel duties to fall and 78 percent said they backed the protests that left the country stuggling to move. Only 18 percent thought Blair was ``in tune with the nation.''

In the MORI poll for the News of the World, 85 percent of those asked blamed the crisis on the government. The protests were supported by 82 percent.