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LONDON — When he led the reformed British Labour Party to two overwhelming general election victories in 1997 and 2001, Tony Blair epitomized a new political generation that would sweep away both the cobwebs of traditional socialist policy and the increasingly incoherent, sleaze-tainted performance of the Conservatives who had held power for almost two decades.

Born in 1953, Blair was a man with whom younger voters could identify, an open politician who appeared to offer a way out of the sterile left-right divide in British politics by grafting the economic reforms of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s era on to concern for social justice and a fairer society. He would solve Britain’s chronic problems with public services — particularly health, education and transport. He would give the nation a new impetus. Above all, Blair won points with voters by his image of honesty. “You can trust me” was his watchword.

Seven years on, Blair faces a nasty case of role reversal. Despite huge amounts of money that his government has funneled into health and education — and real signs of improvement — public opinion remains doubtful about Labour’s record.

After so long in office, the prime minister can no longer present himself as the man of tomorrow, while the exceptional concentration of power on his inner office at 10 Downing Street has turned his image from a new, open politician into one of a control freak whose staff maintains an obsessive watch on behalf of its master.

Most important, though, is the issue of trust. Voters in Britain, like sophisticated electorates from Tokyo to Toronto, do not expect their politicians to be squeaky clean, or to tell them the truth most of the time. A degree of cynicism has come to be built into most democratic systems. Yet, we still see truth as a rule against which we will, when we wish to, judge our leaders. From that, we will decide how much trust we have in them.

This, it might be said, is one dividing line between democracies and dictatorships. Authoritarian leaders have little compunction about lying and inventing pretexts for aggression. They are strangers to accountability. On the other hand, democratic leaders draw part of their legitimacy from claiming to tell the truth and going through the due processes before taking action. Of course, many shades of disinformation, deception and outright dissimulation cloud the democratic process. But, behind the fog of politics, we — at least — expect those rulers to know when they are misleading us.

What is now emerging in both the United States and Britain over the invasion of Iraq is something even more worrying for those in power. As the governments in Washington and London are forced to agree to inquiries, it looks increasingly as though U.S. President George W. Bush and Blair were, themselves, misled — or that the intelligence information on which they based their case for war was manipulated in one way or another for political reasons by those around them.

For Blair, the combination of public skepticism on his reasons for going to war and the unpopularity of his staunch backing for the U.S. has become a long-running drain on his stature as a national leader. Each week, he tries to move the focus away from Iraq by appearing at the launch of one domestic policy initiative after another. But the war will not go away — and the pro-European prime minister may well face another troubling foreign policy issue shortly over the proposed constitution for the European Union that is likely to provoke ferocious attacks from the anti-European press and the substantial ranks of Euro-skeptics in the two houses of Parliament.

As a result, Britain finds itself in a paradoxical state. If a general election were held tomorrow, the Labour Party would undoubtedly win. The Conservative opposition is still finding is feet under its new leader, the feisty but old Thatcherite Michael Howard. While polls give them a fifth of the vote, the third party, the Liberal Democrats, remain outsiders. Britain’s economy is working better than most of those in Europe, as Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), proclaimed in his budget in March.

But the man who stands for the New Labour Party, which won such crushing election victories, has been badly wounded by Iraq. In joining Washington’s war, Blair showed the courage that he had demonstrated previously in modernizing his own party. Now, as then, he is convinced of the rightness of what he did. He is not a man who admits to doubt.

That has been one of his greatest strengths in the last decade, but now the inner certainty that Blair proclaims may be becoming a weakness. Voters need, above all, to be able to trust in what he will offer when he decides to call the next election — later this year or, more probably, in 2005.

If he is to succeed for a third time, the prime minister is going to have to find a new recipe to rekindle the enthusiasm he aroused in his ascension to power, particularly given the presence of Gordon Brown as his successor-in-waiting, whose coolly competent performance in charge of successful economic management contrasts with the prime minister’s increasingly frenetic attempt to regain the initiative.

For most of his career, Blair has been at the leading edge. Iraq and domestic affairs changed that, although he would have hoped, in each case, that they would have had a positive effect. Now he has to find a way of convincing the British people of both the rightness of his policies and of his personal integrity. It is not what he would have wished for as he aims for a third term in Downing Street — but that is what happens when a democratic leader loses democratic trust.

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