The Breakfast Table

Tony Blair’s Charmed Life

Dear Anne,

I have been running around Hammersmith, West London, today, trying to get myself registered with the National Health Service. Until now, I have always gone at great expense to a fashionable private doctor in Knightsbridge because he doesn’t keep me waiting and pretends to take even my most transparently hypochondriacal complaints seriously. But since he put me last year on various blood pressure and cholesterol pills, saying I would have to go on taking them for the rest of my life if I didn’t want to die of a stroke, I have been crippled by enormous bills at the chemist. It was my private doctor who suggested I should register with the NHS to get my prescriptions free. I was recommended a medical center in the middle of a traffic island at Hammersmith Broadway. It is housed in an ultra-modern building consisting on the outside of a blank white wall with a little slot in it for an entrance. It may have been modern and clean, but inside it was just as I feared—a dozen people in chairs with the spirit gone out of them, looking as if they had already been waiting an eternity for their appointments and would probably die before they were called. Anyway, the place turned out to be just too far away from my home for me to be allowed to register there, so I trudged around visiting other medical practices in the neighborhood before finding one that seemed quite friendly and welcoming. It all took so long that I have fallen behind with everything today, including writing you this letter. I’m sorry.

The failings of the NHS, together with the crises affecting practically every public service in Britain, are contributing to great disillusionment with Tony Blair. Few people have a good word to say about his government any longer. Opinion polls show that a majority find it even more mired in sleaze and cronyism than its Conservative predecessor. Yet the puzzle is that the Conservatives are still lagging hopelessly behind in electoral support, and Blair would be returned to power with another huge majority if there were an election tomorrow. He could, however, get into serious trouble with his own party over Iraq. With his shoulder now firmly stuck to Mr. Bush’s, he will find it almost impossible to detach himself from any new foreign adventure on which the president may choose to embark. Blair has been warned that he could face a major revolt by Labor MPs if he joins in a war against Iraq without compelling evidence that the country possesses weapons of mass destruction and is sponsoring global terrorism. But today’s Daily Telegraph,under a front-page banner headline reading “Countdown to war on Saddam,” quotes a Bush administration source as saying that “it has never been doubted that Britain would join an Iraqi campaign,” despite strong reservations among the other European allies. It also has a British diplomat admitting, “Blair has associated himself so closely with the war on terrorism that it is too late to get cold feet now.” His difficulty in uniting his party behind him has been exacerbated by President Bush’s new tariffs on imported steel, about which even Blair has joined in the chorus of outrage. The Daily Telegraph’s front-page pocket cartoon today has an unemployed British steel worker looking at a sign on which Corus Steel, Britain’s largest steel manufacturer, announces it has changed its name to Corus Pretzels, a dig at the president’s tendency to choke on them. But even a crisis over Iraq is unlikely to threaten Blair’s position as prime minister, as the Conservative opposition is also strongly committed to shoulder-to-shoulderism. The man has a charmed life.

Today’s other important news is that British cuckoos are in precipitous decline. These heralds of spring have fallen in number by 20 percent in farmland and 60 percent in woodland over the past 30 years, mainly because of a sharp decline in the number of caterpillars on which they feed. This is the sort of news that saddens British people much more than any foreign war.