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Tony Blair, Six Years and Counting - 2003-08-01

On Saturday, Tony Blair will become the longest-serving Labor Party prime minister in British history, serving six years in office.

Prime Minister Blair believes his government has survived by turning his party away from its old socialist leanings and onto a new path that tolerates free-market principles in the delivery of public services. He explained his centrist philosophy at a news conference this week.

"On Saturday, this Labor government passes a milestone, where we become the longest-serving Labor government of all time. We've achieved this as a political party because we ran for office and governed from the center ground, because we recognized the supreme importance of economic stability, and because we combined this with the strong pursuit of social justice, but in a way relevant to today's world," said Mr. Blair. "Modern social democracy is what today's Labor Party is about and must continue to be about."

The last time Labor was in power for so long was under Clement Atlee, who served as prime minister for six years and 92 days between 1945 and 1951. It was Mr. Atlee who founded Britain's National Health Service, which does not charge patients for health care.

Prime Minister Blair led Labor to power in 1997, ending 18 straight years of Conservative Party rule.

During his tenure, he has sent British troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and he has become the staunchest ally of the United States in the war on terrorism.

On the domestic front, Mr. Blair has helped implement a Northern Ireland peace accord. He has given more autonomy to Scotland and Wales. He has freed the Bank of England to set interest rates, and he has announced major reforms of the judicial system.

As might be expected, opposition parties have criticized many of those actions. But in recent months Mr. Blair's public opinion ratings have also taken a beating, mainly because of allegations that his office may have exaggerated the military might of Iraq before the war, a charge Mr. Blair denies.

The prime minister concedes that he must work harder to restore trust in his government, but he believes in the end he will be judged more on domestic issues than foreign policy. "It is vitally important, whatever issues have been dominating the news for the past year, frankly, the public in the end will judge us on the economy, the health service, schools, crime. Those are the big issues for the public," he said.

Mr. Blair leaves open the possibility he will stand for a third term at the next election, which must be held by 2006. "There's a big job of work still to do, and my appetite for doing it is undiminished," he said, "but who the country elects is ultimately a matter for the country."

Not every one in his party wants Mr. Blair to run again. He encountered internal opposition to the Iraq war when two cabinet secretaries resigned and one-third of the Labor Party members of parliament voted against a resolution approving the invasion. Many trade union leaders are also not happy with the prime minister. And there is persistent talk that a deal exists for Mr. Blair to swap jobs at some point with his treasury minister, Gordon Brown.

If he can hang on until 2009, Mr. Blair could surpass former Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher as the longest serving British prime minister of any party. Mrs. Thatcher resigned in 1990, after holding the job for nearly 12 years.