The long goodbye

Dateline: 11 May 2007

Tony Blair is to resign in June. After ten years in office he is not only the only living person to have led his Labour Party to victory in a general election, he is the only Labour leader ever to achieve three consecutive victories. First elected at only 44, he seems to combine for his party the characteristics of JFK and FDR. Except for one thing: his party doesn't really like him very much.

Only latterly has his party’s suspicion of him focussed on Iraq. Before he came to power he ditched its commitments to nationalization, high taxes and nuclear disarmament. In power he has actively privatized some industries and plans to replace Britain’s nuclear deterrent with a new generation of missiles. He did put up taxes, though.

Some Labour activists were horrified when he pressed Bill Clinton into backing military intervention in the Balkans and at his support for Clinton’s bombing campaign in Iraq. As if his alliance with an American Democrat was not bad enough he has continued his role as America’s best buddy under Republican leadership.

He will be succeeded by his longtime rival and ally, Gordon Brown. For ten years Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer – Treasury Secretary – Brown is a very familiar, widely respected, but not very loved, figure. He is adored by some sections of the Labour Party – who assume he will be a little to Blair’s left – but the general public finds him cold and morose. Many of his cabinet colleagues are reluctant converts to the Brown cause, respecting his intelligence, but finding him personally arrogant and controlling. But his succession is not in doubt. Every serious rival for the Labour leadership – battered, leaked against, and outspun – has endorsed him. In a Parliamentary system there is no need for a general election when the ruling party changes its leader – just as Republicans were able to change Newt Gingrich for Denny Hastert – so when he is formally anointed as Labour leader he will become Prime Minister.

In foreign affairs he may try to distance himself a little from America and Iraq. He will be less inclined to make the case for the War on Terror. But British troops will not be withdrawn from Iraq any faster than if Blair had stayed in office.

Brown’s instincts are even more pro-American than Blair’s. At heart, Blair is a European. He likes relaxing with his family in rural France or Italy. Unusually for an Anglophone, he even likes speaking French. Brown’s idea of a pleasant vacation is a mountain of economic textbooks and political biographies in Cape Cod. It was Brown who first brought Blair to America to observe the Democratic Convention in 1992.

So George Bush will still have a friend in Downing Street. But his friend will be keener to take private phone calls and offer moral support than to organize joint press conferences.

It has often been said that Margaret Thatcher’s greatest success was not that she converted her own party to free markets and low taxes but that, through Tony Blair, she ultimately converted Labour too. Today’s Conservative leader, David Cameron, is, stylistically, more like Blair’s successor than Gordon Brown is. Perhaps forcing his opponents to change will be Blair’s legacy too.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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