Blair's future as prime minister at stake in Britain's elections

LONDON -- Tony Blair looks certain to win today's general election -- but the margin could have deep consequences for Britain's storied "special relationship" with the United States.

Boasting stewardship over years of economic good times, Blair may escape serious punishment over the war in Iraq -- but he has taken enough of a battering in the campaign that any future British leader will probably be wary of backing Washington militarily in the face of hostile domestic opinion.

Having promised he won't run for a fourth term, Blair is looking to secure his place in history after this election.

But if his Labour Party only squeaks by with a slim majority, he could be forced to step down midway through his tenure -- leaving key ambitions, including stable democracy in Iraq, a lasting peace in Northern Ireland and a breakthrough in the Middle East, unfulfilled.

"The biggest impact it might have would be to make the Labour government a little less bold in taking risks on the international stage as a U.S. partner," said Jim Steinberg of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

A politically weakened Blair would also find it difficult to shepherd Britain through a delicate time for the European Union, which is holding a series of referendums this year over a proposed constitution.

Blair's instincts appear to lie in forging closer ties with the EU through the constitution and eventual adoption of the European currency, the euro -- but Britain's strong Euro-skeptic streak has made it impossible for him to make a strong pitch for Europe. An electoral setback Thursday would further tie his hands on the issue.

A total of 646 seats are being contested Thursday in the House of Commons. Labour now enjoys a huge majority of 161 seats, and analysts say an erosion of that dominance could force Blair to make way for his widely respected treasury chief, Gordon Brown.

"The key thing will be whether (Blair) wins a sizable majority. If it is a majority of 100-plus he will feel he has been vindicated. If it's 70 or less, it will make the transition for Gordon Brown much more likely," said Blair biographer Anthony Seldon. "Tony Blair knows his legacy is far from complete but he is fanatical about going on."

The main opposition Conservatives have been somewhat hobbled by their own support for the war. Party leader Michael Howard has accused Blair of being a liar after secret documents published last week showed Blair's top legal adviser warned of the legal consequences of going to war in Iraq without a second U.N. resolution.

Still, polls suggest Blair will defeat Howard, whose attacks on Blair's integrity and calls for a crackdown on immigration appear to have failed to win over the public.

A Populus poll in The Times on Wednesday showed Labour supported by 41 percent of the sample, the Conservatives by 27 percent. The telephone poll of 1,420 people had a margin of error of three percentage points. Some 44.2 million Britons are eligible to vote Thursday.

Urging voters not to punish him over the Iraq war, Blair made a last-ditch appeal Wednesday, asking to be judged on what he says matters -- the economy, health care and education. These issues, to Blair's frustration, were overshadowed by the war in the last week of campaigning.

Another British soldier died in Iraq on Monday -- bringing the total to more than 80 British deaths since the start of the war.

Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Greece and Libya who has been critical of Blair's policies in the Middle East, said he expected Labour to win, but also suffer surprising losses "which could add up to a pretty serious anti-war referendum."

"That would raise the interesting question of whether our policy will change," he said.

Although Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has signaled there may be a British troop pullout next year, many analysts say a withdrawal isn't likely. The bigger question seems to be whether Washington will ask Blair to contribute more troops -- and whether he would be in any position to deliver.

Britain's "special relationship" with the United States goes back to Winston Churchill's warm ties with Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. It particularly flourished in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher fondly referred to Ronald Reagan as "Ronnie" as the two plotted the demise of the Soviet Union.

The left-of-center Blair appears to hold a deeply ingrained belief that Britain's best interest lies in a strong alliance with Washington regardless of political ideology -- he worked closely with both Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush.

Yet as Bush continues to pursue an activist foreign policy in places like Iran and North Korea, it is unclear whether Blair would have the political will or capital to follow Washington's lead.