Timing counts for everything as Blair departs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am

As long goodbyes go, Tony Blair's will take some beating. Nearly 18 months after indicating that he would step down in his third term, Britain's longest-serving Labour prime minister is biding his time, still choosing his moment.

Mr Blair's unprecedented retirement announcement was made when public support was high, a trusted successor was in place and his cherished legacy looked secure. But this week, a steady trickle of bad news and controversy became a torrent, and a favourable place in the history books now looks far less assured.

After a mauling in the opinion polls, calls for the prime minister to make way for his anointed successor, finance chief Gordon Brown, have reached new heights. A survey conducted by YouGov for The Sunday Times found that Mr Blair was suffering his lowest approval rating since coming to power nine years ago, and 49 per cent of respondents felt he should step down before the year-end.

There was more grim reading for the prime minister when The Guardian, traditionally sympathetic to Labour, on Monday called for him to quit, and The Economist ran a cover story that declared his leadership over.

Meanwhile,in the party ranks - the hallmark of Mr Blair's difficult third term - dissent reared its head again this week when Labour MP Geraldine Smith told the BBC that the prime minister's 'sell-by date' had expired.

'Once Tony Blair made it clear he was not going to fight the next general election, he was obviously more concerned about his own legacy and what he will be remembered for,' Ms Smith said. 'I have absolutely no problem with that as long as it is the right legacy.'

The right legacy for Mr Blair would be the survival of his sweeping constitutional and social reforms, and a place in history for bringing peace to Northern Ireland. The danger, however, is that he will be remembered for a tawdry party financing scandal that has dominated recent headlines.

The irony is unlikely to be lost on Mr Blair, who as a fresh-faced 43-year-old swept former prime minister John Major from office in 1997 after years of so-called financial 'sleaze' in the Conservative government.

In the heady days of 'Cool Britannia', the young prime minister aggressively positioned his party in the centre ground of British politics and rebranded it as 'New Labour'. To the dismay of the party rank and file, he dared to pick up where arch conservative Margaret Thatcher had left off, embracing the market economy and jettisoning old Labour values like nationalisation along the way.

But the pursuit of the Blairite 'Third Way' required closer ties to big business, and risked the type of unholy alliances between the corporate and political worlds that did for his predecessor, Mr Major.

'Sleaze has become the hallmark of the dying days of this administration,' Mr Blair said of the outgoing Major government, adding that his administration would be 'whiter than white'.

Those words came back to haunt him this week when it emerged that several wealthy businessmen were nominated for seats in the House of Lords after lending #14 million ($190 million) to Labour to bankroll last year's election campaign.

Legislation requiring that cash gifts to political parties be made public does not cover loans. Nonetheless, Mr Blair has been criticised for keeping the loans secret, even from senior Labour ministers and officials, and a police inquiry is under way.

The master of political spin may yet smooth over the sleaze scandal, but the deeper damage wrought by the defining issue of his administration - Iraq - remains.

In the latest opinion polls, his commitment to the war in Iraq was cited as the main factor behind his falling popularity. Some 52 per cent of respondents to a BBC poll said they thought less of him since the US-led invasion three years ago.

While the British leader does not wear his faith on his sleeve in the manner of his close friend US President George W. Bush, he said earlier this month that he was comforted by religion when weighing the morality of his decision to send troops into Iraq.

'That decision has to be taken and has to be lived with,' he told ITV television. 'In the end there is a judgment that, well I think if you have faith about these things, then you realise that judgment is made by other people.'

Asked to elaborate, he said: 'By other people ... if you believe in God, it's made by God.'

While he awaits his maker's verdict, there is no shortage of critics ready to pass judgment now on the decision to go to war.

The Economist strayed from its Blair-friendly line last week in an editorial that said: 'The case for staying longer [as leader] has to rest on what he could hope to achieve by doing so ... Iraq offers no argument for delay ... Like it or not, Iraq's effect on Mr Blair's reputation is already beyond his reach.'

A raft of draconian domestic security policies were a byproduct of the war in Iraq. But the security programme, driven by a presidential-style prime minister accused of riding roughshod over parliamentary procedure, sparked revolt among Labour lawmakers concerned about the erosion of civil liberties.

The tipping point at which Mr Blair's political authority ebbed away came in November when the Terror Bill, which was drafted in the wake of the London bombings to allow for the detention of suspects for 90 days without trial, was rejected by Parliament.

The defeat was the first since Labour's unconvincing election win last year eroded Mr Blair's once-thumping parliamentary majority to the point where just 40 Labour backbench rebels could block legislation by voting with the opposition. Other bruising Commons encounters followed as rebels forced a watering down of legislation on one of the cornerstones of Mr Blair's domestic security policy, the introduction of compulsory ID cards.

The prime minister's programme to reform the public services has fared little better. Unable to sell his controversial school reforms to Labour lawmakers, his flagship education bill was passed a fortnight ago only with the help of Conservative votes. Labour opponents say the bill, which aims to give state schools in England and Wales greater financial autonomy, will lead to the academic selection of pupils and reduced opportunities for poorer children.

But observers such as John Curtice, professor of politics and government at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, say Mr Blair's recent travails do not entirely diminish the landmark achievements made by New Labour in the six years leading up to the Iraq war.

'His legacy will be that he broke the historic link in the public's mind between the working class and Labour, and that he gave the party a longer and more secure period in office than any previous Labour prime minister was able to deliver,' Professor Curtice told the South China Morning Post.

'His government will be remembered for a raft of constitutional reforms introduced early in its life - it brought devolution to Scotland and Wales, and more or less got rid of the inherited peerage system in the House of Lords, which were pretty major achievements in historical terms.

'The jury is still out on his transformation of public services such as education and health, but New Labour was certainly very different from its predecessors in that how you deliver public services has been changed with a far greater input from the private sector.

'But inevitably, Blair will also be remembered as the first Labour prime minister to fight a dodgy war, and if it continues to be a God- awful mess, his successor will get sucked into it.'

If Mr Brown is daunted by inheriting a political time bomb, there was no sign of it this week. On Wednesday, the chancellor of the exchequer credited with steering Britain through nearly a decade of unprecedented economic growth was busy delivering his 10th budget. In a performance that was as much a manifesto for the leadership as a blueprint for the nation's finances, the 55-year-old left no doubt he would be a high-spending, rather than tax-cutting prime minister as he pledged more funding to build on the school reforms instigated by Mr Blair.

The occasion offered a glimpse of the future as two would-be prime ministers - Mr Brown and the 39-year-old Conservative leader David Cameron - traded blows over the despatch box and a tired-looking Mr Blair watched impassively from the sidelines.

Most political leaders are forced out when they become an electoral liability. For Mr Blair, who will take no part in the next election, the stakes are more personal.

The nature of his departure will determine whether he will be remembered as one of the great British prime ministers, or a flawed political genius who overstayed his welcome.