LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair will not step down until late June. But, with his announcement that he is leaving politics after ten years as the leader of Britain’s government, the national media has already shifted over to speculation about the past-his-sell-by-date prime minister’s determination to make a fortune on the international lecture circuit — “The Blair Rich Project,” the BBC has dubbed it — and on his successor.
Blair’s slow exit strategy should benefit his long-time man in waiting, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who will spend the coming week’s campaigning for a coronation.
Brown hopes to secure the Labour Party leadership without a fight and then assume the prime ministership on Blair’s exit. If he does so — as is likely — it will be the end of one of the most extended periods of understudy in British political history.
Brown, who famously cut a deal in the mid-199Os to let Blair serve first as prime minister, inherits a difficult circumstance. Indeed, the new issue of Britain’s Spectator magazine features a cover headline, “Over to You, Gordon,” illustrated by Blair flashing a middle finger at Brown.
While Britain itself is more prosperous and functional than when Blair and Brown took over after 18 years of Conservative misrule by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the willingness of Blair to act as “George Bush’s poodle” in foreign affairs has taken its political toll not just from the sitting prime minister but from his Labour Party — which is at its lowest point in the polls in decades.
So determined is Blair’s party to distance itself from him that, on the day the prime minister announced he was retiring, his “New Labour, New Britain” slogan was struck from the party website. It was replaced with the word “Labour” and the traditional red rose of the left.
But it will take more than a rose to change the fortunes of a party that has seen its appeal sink since Blair signed on for George “I will miss you, Tony” Bush’s war of whim.
Even the conservative Times of London ridiculed Blair’s exit with a cartoon that had the prime minister’s teeth forming the letters “I-R-A-Q.”
“I can’t help but feel I’m about to witness the passing of the most gifted British politician of my adult lifetime,” explains journalist Jonathan Freedland, echoing popular sentiment. “And I can’t help but feel that Iraq means he squandered the opportunity those gifts gave him.”
Historian Eric Hobsbawm offers a similar assessment: “Tony Blair, a gifted but unthinking politician perfectly suited to the media age, will be remembered for winning three elections, but failing to build ‘new Labour,’ for Iraq, and — not impossibly — for breaking up the United Kingdom. In spite of a very respectable domestic record, his period of government demoralized Labour’s traditional supporters and antagonized the liberal/progressive educated classes.”