Mon, Oct 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Now is the perfect time for Tony Blair to leave

The faithful in the UK are anxious about losing Blair but there was no appeal for him to stay in office at last week's Labour Party conference

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In the end he did play that last encore and still managed to leave the crowd wanting more. That was what his Downing Street advisers had hoped for, at least according to the memo setting out the farewell tour for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, leaked at the start of last month.

And last Tuesday, Blair pulled it off perfectly. He closed his speech at the Labour party conference and left the stage, leaving the audience to gape at a stirring video montage, complete with a loud, pounding soundtrack, of highlights from the Blair years: the defeat of arch-Thatcherite Michael Portillo on May 1 1997, the Good Friday agreement, a third election victory last year. To rhythmic applause, he came back out, working the crowd, touching a succession of hands. His aides wanted him to go out like a rock star, and so he did. Indeed, as he basked in the flashbulbs and ovation, a cheeky thought struck. Blair will never get a better send-off than this. Any other departure -- say, a brief announcement to the cameras outside No 10 -- would count as a terrible anticlimax by comparison.

Last Tuesday he faced a packed, cheering arena, brandishing placards bellowing their gratitude: "Tony, you made Britain better," even "We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah." So what if they were clearly hand-scribbled by party apparatchiks? The effect won't be matched again.

The logical, self-interested move would be for Blair to shock us all and quit this week, ideally on Wednesday morning, thereby wiping out all media coverage of Conservative party leader David Cameron's speech to his party conference. It would be a last act of service to Labour -- and the one way to guarantee that the Blair era ends on a high.

But don't hold your breath. Instead, the prime minister will probably carry on in office, waiting to reach the next great peak. In the meantime, he has given his party an intense 56-minute reminder of what they'll miss when he's gone -- and what they won't.

Topping the first category is the man's sheer, undeniable skill as a political performer. Clare Short, the former Cabinet minister who resigned over Blair's backing of US President George W. Bush in Iraq, calls him an actor-presenter, but if she's right he's an Oscar-worthy actor-presenter. Tellingly, he even compared his own speech to an Oscar winner's, just before he offered thanks to his agent.

He can do it all: hold a large hall rapt, yet still sound right on television; hit every emphasis and cadence; move effortlessly from light to shade. Not for the first time, he defused a current political problem with a joke, quipping that he at least knows his wife is never going to run off with the bloke next door. It was an implicit confirmation that Cherie had indeed branded Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, his longtime wannabe successor, a liar -- but it worked like a charm.

Labour audiences are not the only ones to have got used to this -- we all have. For a decade we've come to think that this kind of skill is normal, just as Americans grew blase after eight years of former US president Bill Clinton's wizardry. Then they got US President George W. Bush and realized that they had witnessed a once-in-a-generation talent. When Blair has gone, we may come to the same realization.

And it will have a political consequence. For what Blair's performance last week demonstrated is that no one can explain New Labourism better than him. Year in and year out he has faced a party that is confused by what it feels are serial ruptures from Labour tradition -- such as the involvement of the private sector in health and education -- and he has patiently argued that, no, on the contrary, this or that move actually represents the fulfilment of Labour ideals. He did it again last week, defending the use of private companies in the national health service and business-sponsored city academies.

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