Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Tony Blair's faith in himself and the long, long, long goodbye

The British leader said seven years ago that he would like to step down before he was pressured to do so, begging the question of why he still chooses to stay

By Christopher Hitchens

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 who was not his wife and forced to resign his post. In his diaries, he describes calling on British 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 chat over coffee in British history, Blair made a proposal to then-member of parliament Gordon Brown, his rival for the leadership of the party. That proposal came in two parts. Blair felt he was demonstrably more "electable," and therefore should lead Labour in deposing the ramshackle Tory regime of former prime minister 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 took with him, Blair talked and acted as if he had a full agenda with 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 realized 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.

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