Polls tilt towards Blair, but this is still the most unpopular war for decades

By John Curtice
Wednesday 19 March 2003 01:00

Tony Blair has started to win the battle for public opinion, but he has a long way to go before he can claim victory on the home front.

Three polls taken over the weekend, when Tony Blair flew to the Azores summit, show a swing in favour of taking military action without explicit United Nations authorisation.

YouGov, the internet polling company, found that 32 per cent of respondents backed Britain joining US-led action that did not have UN sanction. The figure is an increase of six points compared with the position a week earlier, and no fewer than 12 points compared with the end of January.

ICM has reported that 38 per cent of people now approve of a military attack on Iraq, up nine points on its last reading in the middle of February. And, although less favourable to the government, Mori now finds that 26 per cent back military action in the absence both of the UN inspectors finding proof that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction and of UN authorisation for action, a figure that is up two points on a fortnight ago.

Even so, Mr Blair is leading a seriously divided country into war. In each of the polls, more people say they oppose military action than say they are in favour. Moreover, the movement of opinion in the Prime Minister's favour simply means that support for war has returned to the level it was at when the Iraq crisis erupted last autumn.

As our chart shows, on YouGov's figures support for taking non-UN authorised action was as high as 34 per cent in September just after President George Bush first announced his determination to disarm Saddam Hussein.

ICM briefly found a majority in favour of taking military action immediately after the Bali bombing in October.

In short, Mr Blair has yet to sway a substantial number of converts to his cause.

So far he has done no more than regain the support he lost during the winter when President Saddam appeared to be offering at least some form of co-operation with the weapons inspectors.

But perhaps most importantly, at its outset at least this is clearly a far less popular war than any British military engagement in the past 20 years.

At the outset of the Falklands crisis in 1982, no fewer than 83 per cent backed Margaret Thatcher's decision to send a naval task force to the Falklands, while 67 per cent supported sending land troops to the South Atlantic.

Even Mr Blair's decision to be involved in Nato's bombing of the former Yugoslavia was supported by as many as 55 per cent when the first bombs fell on Belgrade.

And perhaps most tellingly of all, a Mori poll taken just days before the 1991 Gulf War started found that 75 per cent backed Britain's involvement in that campaign.

Never, apparently, has so much firepower been assembled with so little public support. Whether the public can be won over remains to be seen.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde.

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