Tony Blair's long goodbye

No politician is free from a sense of destiny, and it seems that Blair's got the better of him.

blair closing eyes 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
blair closing eyes 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
In early 1999, Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of Britain's Liberal Democratic Party (and since then, as Lord Ashdown, Europe's envoy in Bosnia), was found with a woman not his wife and forced to resign his post. In his diaries, he describes calling on Prime Minister Tony Blair to inform him in advance of his intention to quit: "Blair said: 'Going is the most difficult thing to do in politics. Too many people stay for too long. I would rather stop when people said, 'Why is he going?' than when they said, 'Why isn't he going?' Or, even worse, 'When is he going?' I hope I will be able to do it the same way.'" This leaves us with an enduring mystery. Britain's most adept and skillful politician has evidently known for years exactly what not to do about arranging his departure, and yet he has chosen to ignore his own advice. The mystery deepens when we recall that this consideration has been a part of Blair's calculations ever since he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. At a dinner in a London restaurant named Granita, in what has since become the best-known coffee-stage chat in British history, Blair made a proposal to Gordon Brown, his rival for the leadership. That proposal fell in two parts. He, Blair, was demonstrably more "electable," and should lead Labour in deposing the ramshackle Tory regime of John Major. Then, with Labour in power, Brown could expect in due time to receive the mantle. On this condition, Brown agreed to give Blair a clear run. THAT WAS three elections ago. What has kept Blair going? When I called on him in January this year, his press officer advised me not to bring up the obvious question. (I readily agreed, since an unanswerable question is a waste of time.) But no sooner had I asked the Prime Minister how he was than he replied with a grin: "It's nice to know one doesn't have to fight another election." So there was the topic, inescapably, right in the middle of the room. For the rest of the conversation, and on the trip to the outskirts of London that I also took with him, Blair talked and acted as if he had a full Prime Ministerial agenda on everything from global warming to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. He also behaved, when talking to voters and citizens, as if he was tirelessly running for office for a fourth time. Some of the motivations for this are purely human: he likes being Prime Minister and is good at it. Moreover, next year he will have been prime minister for a decade, longer than any previous Labour leader. A little longer, and he would outlast Margaret Thatcher's record-breaking tenure, which must have been a temptation. But Blair inexplicably chose to compound the mistake he had made with Brown, by announcing publicly, after having defeated the Tories for the third straight time, that he would not stand again. From then on, there was really only one question on peoples' minds, and it was the third - the worst - of the three questions he had mentioned to Ashdown: "When is he going?" Blair ought to have known that politics is a pitiless business. For years, his backbench members of parliament kept quiet because they knew that they owed their seats, and their majority, to him. Now, with the country insisting on an answer to the question he posed, they see him as a liability. And the trade unions, whose power he has done so much to reduce, have been open in saying that they want a new party leader. Thus, his announcement that he will leave Downing Street next year is no more than a reluctant acceptance of what has been reality for some time. NO POLITICIAN is free from a sense of destiny, and I think that Blair's got the better of him. In the decision to send British forces to defend Sierra Leone from a barbaric invasion from Liberia, he faced down all those who warned of disaster and won great moral credit. In deploying soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, he was convinced that he was both morally correct and politically right to stand by Britain's main historic ally, the United States. (It is reasonably certain that he would not have trusted Brown to do any of these things in the face of any serious opposition, and also reasonably certain that he was correct to think so.) When I first interviewed Blair, as newly elected Labour leader in 1994, he answered my question about the role of his Christianity in his politics by saying, "I can't stand politicians who go on about religion." If I had to date the moment when my own misgivings about him began, it would be the time - starting after September 11, 2001 - when he began to emphasize his own "faith" as a motivating factor in his moral stand. A saving element in British politics is that such appeals are usually considered embarrassing. They may also suggest a slight tendency, on the part of those uttering them, to believe in some kind of supernatural endorsement. So Blair's concession that he must leave office, a decision so long postponed and so disastrously protracted, represents among other things a triumph of the mundane over the permanent temptation to believe that politics is about anything else. The writer's most recent book is Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.