INTERNATIONAL

Blair image `damaged' by probe

LONDON SEPT. 26. `Untrustworthy', "out of touch'' and obsessed with "spin and public relations''. That is the verdict on the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, according to the first nationwide poll on the impact of the Kelly affair published on Thursday as the Hutton inquiry into the weapons inspector, David Kelly's death retired after a summing up by the counsel representing the various parties involved in the controversy.

The Guardian/ICM poll, described by critics as a "wake-up call'' for Mr. Blair, said that his personal reputation had been "seriously damaged by the Hutton inquiry'' with a whopping 61 per cent of the people saying they were `dissatisfied' with him.

"Mr. Blair is now widely seen as an out-of-touch, untrustworthy Prime Minister who spends too much time abroad and is too concerned with spin,'' it said describing his personal ratings as the worst in the past three years, but still way ahead of his two Tory predecessors, John Major and Margaret Thatcher in their last days in power.

Although Mr. Blair is still seen as more competent than his Tory rival, Iain Duncan Smith, his cross-party appeal which, according to the poll, was once Labour's "biggest electoral asset'' has `evaporated' and he is in danger of losing his "Teflon Tony reputation for good''.

The poll came as his critics gleefully pointed to the latest Newsweek cover showing a haggard-looking Mr. Blair with the heading "The Twilight of Tony Blair''.

"Battered by the furore over Iraq, Britain's Prime Minister faces a diminished future,'' it says calling the current phase as the "final chapter'' of his premiership.

All this does not augur well for Mr. Blair as he prepares for the Labour Party's annual conference, which is expected to give him a rough ride in the wake of the party's recent shock defeat in one of its safest parliamentary seats; the continuing row over Iraq; and the damaging headlines generated by the Hutton inquiry.

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