LONDON — It is becoming impossible not to feel sorry for Tony Blair, Britain’s departing prime minister.
Here is a man still in his prime who has led his country as chief executive for almost a decade, who has kept Britain at the center of world affairs, who has presided during a period of greatly increased wealth and prosperity (although admittedly with a huge increase in debt), who has shown himself to be one of the quickest minds in politics and to have had both unquestionably good intentions and sometimes deep insights into the complexities of modern government.
Yet what has been his reward? Popularity draining away, open contempt in some quarters, calls from both friends and foes for earlier departure than he himself would wish and general condemnation almost all round as a shallow leader who promised more than could ever be delivered.
This seems deeply unfair, as in a way it is. Blair could have been the sort of conventional populist, socialist leader who rejected the message of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and took Britain back to the class warfare, centralism and labor union domination that paralyzed the country in the past.
But instead he pursued and even reinforced parts of the Thatcher inheritance and dragged his own Labour Party into acceptance of free markets and economic liberalism. On the home front, social reforms may have been slow but there have been some undoubted improvements in work conditions and — for many, if not all — in living standards.
So why now has the outcry built up against him? At root, Blair made two dreadful mistakes that threaten to cancel out his achievements. The first may seem less serious to the outside world and was a political insiders’ error, but nevertheless a near-fatal one. It was to announce that he intended to give up the premiership by a certain date — in this case the next British general election, which will probably be in 2009. Since he would have to give a successor time to establish himself, this meant that he was promising to go sometime in 2007.
In Japanese politics this kind of timetable may be manageable, and indeed it was precisely the path taken by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in making way for a new leader last autumn. But in British politics it is a disastrous position to take.
Why? Because quite simply the prime minister relies, for his authority, almost solely on the power to hire and fire other ministers. Once he announces his intention to go, that authority departs. All those ambitious ministers round him no longer feel the need to curry favor with him, or agree politely to his views or fawn on him like courtiers. They turn their attentions elsewhere and start maneuvering for their positions under the likely successor — in this case Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown.
Suddenly round the Cabinet table the outgoing man loses the power to get agreement. His views are openly challenged, even disregarded. This is already occurring on a number of key issues. By saying he is going, Blair has literally made himself yesterday’s man — at least as far as British internal politics are concerned.
Blair’s other major error is a more visible and obvious one. It is to have got himself into the position where he is seen as the lapdog of America, and of U.S. President George W. Bush in particular. If the Bush strategy was working in the Middle East, if Iraq had settled down peacefully, if Lebanon had been pacified and reunited by skillful and sensitive Israeli intervention, backed by America, this would not have hurt Blair.
But none of these things has happened. On the contrary, the entire Bush approach — not just in Iraq but throughout the Middle East — has been shown to be flawed. To attempt to impose a certain kind of democracy package on this region, and to do so in the belief that it can be done by overwhelming force, was an error of historic proportions and one that the British, with their deep experience of past problems in the Middle East, ought to have been able to anticipate and avoid.
Yet for reasons that Blair’s friends still cannot fully understand, he went along uncomplainingly with the Bush approach at almost every point, offering only token cautions and gaining no concessions, except for a few nice words, in return.
So Britain’s reputation and influence on the global stage has been dragged down with America’s, and this is very deeply resented, perhaps most of all by Blair’s own backers and party members. It seems that foreign policy, which pollsters and self-appointed election pundits often assert is of no interest to voters, has in this case been the central issue in tarnishing his legacy.
As he grows weaker, other issues, which in better times he could have brushed off, pile up against him. Notable among these is that he is somehow implicated in the blatant sale of peerages, meaning the granting of seats in the House of Lords, in exchange for cash donations to political parties. This is illegal. In an unprecedented move the police have twice visited him to ask his help with their inquiries.
All this gives his opponents still more ammunition. The fact that for the last thousand years great titles and privileges have been handed out by the country’s rulers for favors and support received is lost in today’s frenzy of criticism and media attacks as the vultures gather round the victim.
It was once said that all political careers, however glittering, end in failure. That is not always true, but in this case it may sadly turn out to be so.
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