Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Blair wants to run and run

Many people think it's time for Britain's prime minister to step down, that the war in Iraq and the Kelly affair would do him in. But Tony Blair appears determined to stay on

By Andrew Rawnsley  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Those calling for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to abdicate underestimate how difficult it is to oust a leader determined to stay on the throne

On the eve of his tenth and toughest annual party conference as Labour leader, there was one item of more encouraging news for Blair: the opposition Conservatives have called for his resignation.

Whatever the prime minister's multiple troubles, that should cheer him. The Tories (Conservatives) are what economists would call a "contrarian indicator." The chances of something happening become massively smaller the moment that the Conservatives demand it. If this holds as good as it has in the recent past, then Blair can look forward to many more years comfortably ensconced at Number 10.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, was late to a trend. Calls for Blair to abdicate his throne now come daily.

Discontented union leaders do it. Disaffected Labour members of parliament (MPs) do it. Newspaper columnists do it. The former minister Clare Short does it repeatedly, each time with added vehemence, as if she cannot fathom why he is still there when she has been so clear that he has to go.

More disturbing for Blair, the voters increasingly agree. A Mori poll published in the Financial Times last Saturday suggests that half the British public think he should resign. The poll of Labour Party members which The Observer published the following day indicates that 41 percent of them think Blair should be retired immediately or before the next election.

More sotto voce, even some of those who would be regarded as his natural allies wonder privately whether the leader might be approaching his sell-by-date. As one Labour modernizer put it to me recently: "We are all talking about how to renew the government. What we are actually asking, but do not say openly, is whether Tony can renew himself."

Charles Kennedy, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, joined the fashion late last month when he talked about Britain entering the "post-Blair era," a trifle presumptuous from the leader of a party which has not defined an era in British politics for more than 75 years.

Calls for the prime minister to quit will clamor around Labour's Bournemouth conference as well, quite likely in the hall itself, certainly on the fringe. This all serves to illustrate how severely the erstwhile Teflon Man has been scorched. The once invincible Blair is now mortal enough to be told to his face that he must go. That still leaves an enormous problem in the way of those who would get rid of him. That obstacle is Blair himself.

Some political systems, like that of the US, limit the years that a leader can hold office. In the absence of automatic retirement, there are six main ways in which a British leader can be finished. Scandal can push him out. A palace coup by his senior colleagues can eject him. Revolt by his party can chuck him out. The curtain can be brought down by incapacity, exhaustion or death. The electorate can vote him out. Finally, and very rarely, a leader decides to go of his own volition.

Blair does not sound like a prime minister preparing to take voluntary redundancy. Nor does he come over as a man willing to compromise to keep his job. Those who want the leader to change get little return from him.

"I am what I am," he says bluntly.

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