BEIJING/LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair's personal standing has been hammered by a political controversy over the Iraq war which led to the death of a government scientist, opinion polls showed Tuesday.
But despite falling ratings and worried currency markets, Blair declared he had no regrets about joining Washington in the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, saying in China: "It was the right thing to do."
An ICM poll in the Guardian newspaper showed public trust in Blair -- once one of the most popular prime ministers in British history -- slumped by 12 points in the past month to 39 percent.
Graphic showing the latest Guardian/ICM poll findings as British Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity slips for the third month in a row. (AFP)
It also showed Blair's personal approval rating had dropped to minus 17 -- down from plus seven on the so-called "Baghdad Bounce" in the immediate aftermath of the war.
A second poll by MORI for the Sun newspaper showed a quarter of all voters who backed Blair at the last election in 2001 have switched support to another political party.
That poll cited worries about Blair's ability to improve schools, hospitals and public transport. But the ICM poll, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the death of Iraq weapons scientist David Kelly last week, showed voters doubting Blair's trustworthiness and competence.
On a tour of Asia, Blair refused to comment directly on Kelly, who bled to death of a slit wrist after being dragged into a row between the government and the BBC over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the case Blair made for war.
But Blair insisted he was right to act against Iraq.
"I believe what we did was right," he told students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "No, I don't regret it. I've no doubt at all that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons."
He justified the war by saying Saddam had to be disarmed of banned weapons, but months after military action finished none has been found.
The failure to find weapons has already undermined the government's credibility -- several ministers have quit since the war saying Blair misled them over the case for action.
The ICM poll showed the government's lead over the opposition Conservatives has dropped to just two points from 12 points two months ago. Support for Labor was at 36 percent compared to 34 percent for Conservatives.
Blair skirted round students' questions about how he could get through this political crisis and regain public trust.
"What you have got to do as a political leader in a democracy is you have got to say 'this is where I stand, that is what I believe,"' he said. "If you believe that, you can vote for me; if you don't believe it, you don't have to vote for me."
Blair's standing has not been the only casualty.
Currency dealers cited the affair as the pound hit a three-month low against the dollar and a six-week low against the euro Monday. Sterling had recovered some ground by Tuesday but the market remained jittery.
And the British Broadcasting Corporation, which named Kelly as its "principal source" for a damaging story questioning the Blair's pre-war claim that Saddam could launch weapons at just 45 minutes' notice, was also under pressure.
The Times newspaper said the first cracks were beginning to show in the BBC, which has so far backed the man who reported the story, Andrew Gilligan.
But the BBC dismissed talk of a rift among its governors and denied reports it had called an emergency management meeting.
Copyright © 2003 Reuters Ltd