EDITORIAL: US atrocities test leadership skills

If President George Bush's reaction to the events in the US last

week show him unable to speak directly to his people in traumatic times,

the response of Tony Blair to the estimated 250 British deaths has been

quite the opposite.

From the start, the Government has shown the sort of PR judgement that

makes the difference between merely coping with a crisis and finding a

silver lining to the gloomiest of clouds. Cancelling his widely trailed

speech to the TUC as the scale of the US disaster became clear was the

least he could have done. To follow it with a pledge to assist

financially in getting bereaved families to New York was an act of

generosity with obvious reputational benefits down the line.

In addition to the aid for UK families, the Government appears to have

pulled out the stops in its attempt to help British journalists. It has

been reported that senior Downing Street staff - including director of

communications and strategy Alastair Campbell - acted to urge Canada to

allow a plane chartered by the UK media to land when all US East Coast

airports were closed.

Going out of one's way to help journalists get to the biggest story for

decades was both a moral imperative and a PR masterstroke. It will have

earned a fund of goodwill to spend in the future similar in impact to

the fresh doubts that have now arisen over Bush's leadership.

Blair has had practice in managing major crises. His immediate calming

reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 smacked of both guile

under pressure and sharp advisers. More recently, of course, his

handling of the fuel price campaign 12 months ago and of the

foot-and-mouth outbreak shortly after, gave reason to question his

ability to emerge with his image enhanced from difficult situations.

With his lobbying tour of Western capitals this week such doubts can be

laid to rest.

The Government is clear in its support of US action against Afghanistan,

the country which plays host to chief suspect Osama bin Laden. It cannot

be assumed on the basis of his form so far that Blair will find it easy

to bring popular will with him as he embarks on the second major

military engagement of his premiership. Indeed, the PR challenge in

steeling people for battle when the source of the battle is not simply

defending our nation cannot be overstated. And yet with the Kosovo

campaign behind him, he has experience of this, too.

It will be easier to win public support for his aims if he is seen as

acting in tandem with the grieving US - in Kosovo he was forced to spend

substantial time lobbying a reluctant US to participate. Blair has

cleared early hurdles well, but faces a long and tough road ahead.

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