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Analysis: London bombers strengthen Blair

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor



LONDON, England (CNN) -- The terrorist attacks on London could have wrecked one of the pinnacles of Tony Blair's career -- his ambitious attempt as chairman of the G8 nations to secure a major step-change in aid for Africa and to get the G8 nations to commit together to a new wave of action to reduce global warming.

That the terrorists' aims in that regard were thwarted was a testament to the political and communication skills of one of the world's most experienced political leaders. Blair broke off from the G8 deliberations in Scotland and flew south to demonstrate his solidarity with Londoners and to be briefed at first hand on developments.

But he refused to call off the G8. Instead he returned to present it as a showcase for the "politics of hope," contrasting its aims with the terrorists' destructive desire to spread fear and despondency. The G8 leaders -- and the others on hand like the presidents of China and Brazil and the prime ministers of India and South Africa --lined up with him in a memorable picture to declare their common determination to fight terrorism in all its manifestations.

Not all the G8 had come to Scotland ready to sign up to Blair's desire to double aid for Africa. But in the mood of somber solidarity all came round, recognizing it was not a time for grandstanding. As a result Blair probably won a better deal than he had hoped for.

Ironically for the terrorists, who might have hoped to see a new wave of the backlash on the Iraq war which had seen Blair's majority slashed from 160 to 67 at the May general election, they have probably lengthened rather than shortened his time in office.

A prime minister who looked to have been severely weakened in the wake of what he had promised would be his last election, with some Labour MPs clamoring for him to quit within a year or 18 months, has in fact steadily built his strength in the weeks since.

With a kind of "outrage fatigue" setting in, among both media and politicians, the issue of Iraq has been pushed onto the back burner.

Jacques Chirac's loss of the referendum in France on the EU constitution and the subsequent failure of the EU summit to agree on a new budget for the 25-nation bloc has seen Blair, who took over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, emerge as the champion of a new model for the European economy.

His resolute defence of the British budget rebate saw him praised in parts of the British media who normally deride his every move. So did his risky mission to Singapore to help win the 2012 Olympics for London and the obvious delight he took in that just the day before the London attacks saw the political roller coaster plunge again.

There have been a few voices raised, like that of ex-Labour and now Respect MP George Galloway, to suggest that London's victims have paid the price for the Iraq war. But the well-rehearsed and highly efficient performance by the emergency services, coupled with Blair's ability to find the right words for big occasions, has ensured there was no immediate political backlash.

In fact the reverse seems to be happening. The voices in the Labour Party who had been urging that Blair should go sooner rather than later have been at least temporarily stilled as the crisis has demonstrated the value of an office-hardened leader. And Blair swiftly sought to unite the nation with his insistence that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain abhorred the violence just as strongly as anybody else.

The previously vociferous resistance to some of the government's legislative measures designed to counter terrorism seems likely to diminish, even though Home Secretary Charles Clarke admitted that having a system of identity cards in place -- one of the most contentious items -- would not have prevented the London Underground and bus bombs.

But what effect will the London bombings have on the wider European scene?

The European leaders who were not at Gleneagles have been swift to signal their support and solidarity for Britain and for Blair at a time of national tragedy.

And it seems likely that the "Gleneagles effect" could play for a while in European politics too. There will be no more of Jacques Chirac's cheap gibes at the trustworthiness of a nation which cooks in British style. The French president was the very model of a senior statesman at Gleneagles, helping to forge a compromise with President Bush on climate change.

Though politics rarely takes long to shake back into its normal patterns it will hardly seem the time for other European leaders to renew their assaults on the British budget rebate and there will be a greater impetus to achieve a compromise deal. There will too be a renewed opportunity, which Blair is likely to grasp with relish in the chair, to drive forward European co-operation on counter terrorism.

Denmark and Italy, two other nations which, like Britain, provided troops in the Iraq war, have been threatened with retaliation by groups sympathetic to al Qaeda and Polish parliamentarians have wondered openly if their country too will be punished by terrorists for participating in the war, even though they and most other European nations who contributed are now withdrawing or reducing their contingents.

The EU produced one raft of counter-terrorism measures after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, another after the Madrid bombings in March 2004.

But some countries have been slow to implement or even to ratify the various schemes for swifter information-swapping between police and judiciary in EU countries, for more effective techniques to counter money-laundering and for more action to prevent the radicalization and recruitment of terrorists among Islamic youths.

If Blair chooses to push forward on that agenda, as he had signaled he was ready to do even before the London bombings he should for a while be pushing at an open door. The EU's Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has already declared: "It's necessary to activate immediately co-ordination between intelligence and police services and offer England all the help possible."

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