Blair to step down as prime minister on June 27
By Ben Hall in London
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: May 9 2007 21:13 | Last updated: May 10 2007 15:44
Tony Blair on Thursday marked the beginning of the end of his decade as Britain’s prime minister when he announced his intention to step down as prime minister on June 27, paving the way for a transfer of power to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer.
Mr Blair’s long-awaited resignation plans, delivered to party activists in his Sedgefield constituency in north-east England, bring down the curtain on the longest-serving Labour prime minister, and the most dominant British political figure since Margaret Thatcher.
“Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down,” he said.
The 54-year-old leader acknowledged that he had made mistakes and had provoked “grievances that fester”. Expectations of him were possibly too high when he won his first of three general election victories in 1997, he said.
But he issued a powerful appeal to his critics to consider his achievements in the round and to accept that he took decisions, including the one to go to war in Iraq, in good faith. “I ask you to accept one thing: hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.”
Mr Blair summed up his legacy as leaving behind a Britain that is “comfortable in the 21st century, proud of its past, confident of its future”.
He delivered a robust defence of his record since 1997, saying only one government since 1945 had delivered “more jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime and economic growth in every quarter. There is only one government. This one.”
“Britain is not a follower today,” he added. “Britain is a leader”.
Mr Blair’s resignation announcement drew tributes from fellow leaders around the globe. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said he had taken Britain into the mainstream of the European Union and left an “impressive legacy including his commitment to “action against climate change and for fighting poverty in Africa”. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, said Mr Blair had done a ”magnificent job” over ten years, particularly in relation to education reform and the economy. Jan Peter Balkenende, Dutch premier, said his UK counterpart had ”made a lot of good things happen in the economy and society”. Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, said Mr Blair deserved an ”honoured place in our history” for devoting ”unprecedented time and attention” to bringing about peace in Northern Ireland.
Mr Blair will formally remain as prime minister and party chief until a new Labour leader is chosen by a special conference of the Labour party, probably handing over the keys to 10 Downing Street on July 2.
Earlier, Mr Blair confirmed his plans to cabinet colleagues. At that meeting, Mr Brown spoke up to pay tribute to his colleague’s “unique achievements over the last ten years and unique leadership he has given his party, Britain and the rest of the world”.
John Prescott, Mr Blair’s deputy, also confirmed to cabinet colleagues that he would stand down as Labour’s deputy leader and deputy prime minister. Mr Prescott made his intentions clear in an open letter to activists in his constituency in Hull, northen England.
Mr Blair’s remaining weeks in office will be focused on foreign affairs, starting on Friday with a trip to Paris to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, incoming president of France. He is also to travel to Washington for his last visit to the White House later this month, followed by a tour of southern Africa.
Mr Brown is expected to launch his Labour party leadership bid on Friday. However, he is far from certain to face a challenger after a string of possible contenders in recent weeks ruled themselves out of the race.
Later on Thursday, a small leftwing faction inside the Labour party will meet to decide whether it will mount a challenge to Mr Brown.
A contest will be triggered only if one of two low-profile left-wing Labour MPs who have said they want to run against him on a traditional socialist ticket manages to secure the necessary 45 nominations from fellow Labour MPs.
Nevertheless, the party’s executive has decided that the new leader will not be inaugurated before the end of June.
Mr Blair’s resignation removes the most dominant figure in British politics for 13 years and the second longest-serving prime minister in the European Union.
He transformed the British political landscape, dragging the Labour party which he has led since 1994, to the electoral centre-ground and winning a record three consecutive general election victories.
But the high hopes and optimism that accompanied his 1997 triumph against the incumbent Conservative party have dwindled following his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq. A whiff of financial scandal over allegations of illegal party funding and the wear and tear of government have also taken their toll, causing Mr Blair’s popularity ratings to plummet even further.
Mr Brown is not expected to call an election immediately after becoming prime minister. This is because Britain’s constitutional arrangements allow for a governing party to change its leader – and therefore the sitting prime minister – between general elections.
Anthony Eden, a former Conservative premier, called a snap election on entering Downing Street in similar circumstances in 1955. But this is the only occasion on which this has happened in Britain since the second world war.
A needless war cost Blair the respect he craves
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: May 9 2007 19:06 | Last updated: May 9 2007 19:06
“All I care about is respect and legacy.” The boxer Floyd Mayweather was speaking before his last fight in Las Vegas on Saturday, but his words might well be echoed by Tony Blair as he raises his own gloves for a final bow. The question is what Mr Blair’s legacy will be and how much respect posterity will grant him.
In the light of history, 10 years is an eye-blink, but it seems a very long time indeed since Mr Blair swept into Downing Street on May 2, 1997, amid intense excitement. He had it all going for him. It seemed as though he could do anything he liked – and that exalted atmosphere then accounts for the mood of sour disappointment now.
Parts of his legacy appear secure enough, until you look harder and wonder how much they are really his. The British economy has performed well in the Blair decade, though perhaps we should say the Gordon Brown decade.
At the same time it was hard not to smile when Martin Wolf wrote here last week that this success was largely attributable to the “decision to keep the UK out of the European Monetary Union”.
That is doubtless the case, as something like a consensus among economists now holds. But there was once another consensus. Ten years ago it was a central article of faith for the New Labour elite and the Blairite media claque that he would be the most pro-European prime minister the country had ever had, and would take the UK into the single currency as soon as he could, surely within the lifetime of his first parliament. There are few better illustrations of the truth that political leaders sway from planned failure to unplanned success.
Many other hopes that reposed in Mr Blair 10 years ago have not been fulfilled. Some of his most ardent supporters then, such as the writer Will Hutton, insisted that he would prove a radical Keynesian-cum-social democratic reformer, who would strengthen the unions, raise income tax and redistribute wealth. It was Robert Taylor, formerly of the Financial Times, who was more prescient when he wrote before that election: “The New Labour ‘project’ looks increasingly like Margaret Thatcher’s final triumph”.
Whatever the domestic record of the Blair government, there is one terrible dark cloud: nobody who voted for Mr Blair in 1997 or 2001 was voting to invade Iraq. Even his earlier admirers concede that the way Mr Blair took the country to war casts doubt on both his judgment and his honesty, and the subsequent calamity has blighted his name forever.
That is why recent reports that, when he leaves Downing Street, Mr Blair will go to the Middle East as “a roving ambassador” to try to revive the stalled peace process are frankly bizarre. Scarcely anyone alive is less equipped for such a role. Such little repute as Mr Blair still enjoyed in the Middle East after Iraq was finally destroyed last summer. As part of his perverse determination always to stand shoulder to shoulder with the White House, he endorsed the Israeli war in Lebanon, a war which most of his own MPs, and most British people, deplored at the time, and which most Israelis now think was a mistake.
When the prime minister visited the Levant at the end of last year, Marc Sirois of the Beirut Daily Star told the BBC World Service that the mission was pointless. Mr Blair could not possibly act as an honest broker, since: “He is identified so strongly by Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as somebody who supports the policies of the Bush administration and the United States...George Bush might be hated here but at least he’s respected. Tony Blair doesn’t even have respect”.
That is a bitter truth. Eight years ago, Mr Blair could be acclaimed by an American writer as “the leader of the free world”. Could anyone say that today without inviting derision?
In the 1920s, Neville Chamberlain was an immensely creative minister, transforming local government and much else besides. As chancellor of the exchequer from 1931 to 1937 he rescued the British economy after the depression. And who now remembers Chamberlain’s huge achievements in domestic politics? All is overshadowed by the three years as prime minister when he practised a policy of appeasement.
Maybe Mr Blair might say that he did the opposite. But then Chamberlain was ruined by striving to avert what was truly “a war of necessity and not choice”, whereas Mr Blair took his country into a needless, lawless and finally catastrophic war of choice. And that, sad to say, answers the question about “respect and legacy”.
The writer’s latest book is Yo, Blair!
Was Blair Bush’s poodle?
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: May 10 2007 09:54 | Last updated: May 10 2007 09:54
By Edward Luce in Washington
Whenever Tony Blair needed to escape his domestic woes, Washington was the preferred bolthole. In spite of his badly tattered reputation at home, the outgoing prime minister remains in high standing on both sides of the aisle in Washington – even among trenchant critics of the war in Iraq.
One reason Mr Blair gets a relatively free pass from American critics of the Iraq war is because they see his unwavering support for Mr Bush as having been motivated by noble intentions. Unlike Mr Blair’s British critics, who say he ducked the opportunity to influence the White House over issues such as Israel-Palestine and Guantanamo, they have a more modest assessment of Britain’s influence in Washington.
Would Mr Blair have been able to stop the invasion of Iraq if – say - he had opposed it in concert with Colin Powell, the then secretary of state? “I very much doubt it,” says Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and is now head of the Brookings Institution. “To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the gentleman [Mr Bush] was not for turning.”
Others credit Mr Blair with a level of persuasiveness that Mr Bush lacked – particularly following the 11 September terrorist attacks when the UK prime minister spoke movingly of Britain’s common cause with America. But that felicity with words was also put to questionable ends, says Zbigniew Brzezinksi, the national security advisor in the Carter administration.
“Too often Mr Blair would emerge from meetings with Mr Bush and give an eloquent rationale to the crude unilateralism that Mr Bush had expressed in the meeting – in that sense Tony Blair did us all a great disservice,” said Mr Brzezinski. “Rather than using the “special relationship” to persuade Mr Bush to do more constructive things, Blair chose to make it a subordinate relationship in every respect.”
Former members of the Bush administration corroborate this account. One former senior official says that he would frequently sit down with Jack Straw, who was then UK foreign minister, and discuss the points that Mr Blair should raise with the US president before their meetings. These would include issues such as management of the Iraq war, talks with Iran and America’s perceived flouting of international law at Guantanamo and other detention centres. But in most cases Mr Blair would fail entirely to raise the controversial topics.
“Tony Blair has always been a puzzle to me,” says the former official. “Here is a man who showed great courage in taking on domestic public opinion in order to join a very unpopular invasion of Iraq and yet in private conversation with George Bush he was as quiet as a mouse.”
Few people in Washington have much sense of whether - or how - Gordon Brown will prove different to his predecessor in managing the special relationship. Unlike Mr Blair, who charmed Capitol Hill when he was leader of the opposition in the mid-1990s, Mr Brown is little known beyond the confines of the US Treasury and the Bretton Woods institutions.
“When Tony Blair last visited us [the Senate foreign relations committee] we had a full attendance of senators,” said a senior staffer. “I can’t remember the last time a foreign leader got this kind of turn out. As for Gordon Brown, we really know very little about him other than the fact he is Scottish.”
But Mr Brown may have an opportunity to put the UK’s relationship with Washington on a new footing if he wished, argues Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who was in the US this week to launch his book, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite.
“The Blair years should have given the lie to the UK Foreign Office’s argument that a quiet word in the ear works better with Americans than speaking out publicly,” says Mr Ross. “Mr Blair took “poodleism” to a new level and there is virtually nothing in the way of quid pro quo that he has to show for it.”
Mr Blair’s relationship with Mr Bush should also have belied the old adage that Britain plays “Greece to Amercia’s Rome”, says Chris Patten, the former European Union external affairs commissioner. “People forget that the Greeks were slaves to the Romans,” he said. “I think it’s time to put that saying to rest.”