British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement last month that he would resign within a year, although expected due to the earlier revolt in his party, took many by surprise. After all he has been one of the most accomplished world politicians. And to a great degree, thanks to him, the British Labour Party has been in power for the last decade. Douglas Fraser, political editor of the Scottish newspaper The Herald, explains.
“The Labour Party has never seen anyone deliver success the way Tony Blair has done it, it was just over 100 years old and it struggled between impractical idealism and occasionally getting into power, but very rarely winning for a second term. Tony Blair has won them two landslide majorities and in a third term by smaller margin, nevertheless, They owe him a huge legacy by steering them right into a center ground of the British politics.”
Throughout the 1990's he also proved that sound economics and social justice could indeed co-exist. Unemployment declined, the economy flourished and Britain started to outpace some of its European rivals. But first and foremost, as Douglas Fraser continues, it was Blair's charm and charisma that won him popularity.
“He is a fantastic performer”, says Mr. Fraser. “He is a sort of thespian politician. He can deliver very inspirational speeches. And there are very few people in any generation with the talent he's got - to inspire people, to lead people places they didn't necessarily want to go.”
Like Iraq. Analysts say that even though domestic scandals have marred Tony Blair's tenure since he assumed his post in 1997, it was his strong support for the Iraq war and his ties to Washington that truly dented his popularity. Ian Williams, US correspondent for The Tribune, the British newspaper affiliated with the Labour Party, explains. “Look, it's been the bedrock of policy since 1945 for the Labour government that there should be a strong alliance with the United States. I think the difference is that many of the members think that it has gone beyond an alliance to becoming a dependency.”
Ultimately, according to many observers, including Douglas Fraser, it was Mr. Blair's support for Washington's position on the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel over the summer that cost him his job.
“But the final straw this summer was the position he took over the conflict in the Middle East where yet again he tied himself very closely to the Washington position, was very slow to call for a ceasefire,” says Mr. Fraser. “He reasoned that it was pointless to call for a ceasefire until the protagonists were willing to talk… But nevertheless the perception in the UK was that he had yet again damaged Britain's position, particularly in the Muslim world by being seen to be too close to Washington.”
But for his part, Mr. Blair is not in the mood to apologize for Iraq or anything else. In a recent emotional speech in Manchester addressing his party, Tony Blair spoke of the continued need for a strong alliance with the United States and for the British commitment to the war on terror. According to Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's senior White House correspondent, the events of 9/11 have redefined Tony Blair's position on many issues and changed his worldview: “Before 9/11, a little bit like President Bush, many people were wondering about Tony Blair - what was he going to do with power, what is he going to do with his popularity, what was his mission? And 9/11 gave him a mission in the same way that it gave President Bush his mission.”
At the same time, many people wondered how Tony Blair would get along with Republican President George W. Bush---a very different personality from former Democratic President Bill Clinton with whom Tony Blair enjoyed a close rapport. Analysts say that for Tony Blair, the traditional, special relationship between Great Britain and the United States transcended party lines. Moreover, Newsweek's Richard Wolffe points to a common personal style between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. He says both share strong convictions, and stick to their political choices despite difficulties.
“They got on well personally, they got on well because they share this worldview. Some people have seen it as sort of a religious thing … Personally I'm not sure that they're acting out of their religion so much as out of belief that as successful politicians they can't afford to avoid difficult things - they should do difficult things. And that means they've taken on big things like terrorism.”
However, a recent revolt within Mr. Blair's Labour Party forced him to promise that he would depart within a year. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is likely to succeed Mr. Blair as Prime Minister. But while Tony Blair may be a liability for the Labour Party now, he might turn out to be its greatest asset. Similarly, the United States could be losing its staunchest ally and international spokesman who often argued eloquently in defense of US policies around the world.