What's Gone Wrong for Tony Blair

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Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses journalists at his monthly news conference in Downing Street.

"Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. An' if I stay it will be double."

Even if he's not a fan of The Clash, Tony Blair — a former rock musician himself — must be hearing these lyrics in his head this week. Having led the Labour Party to a historic third term victory just a year ago, he now confronts a party in turmoil, dominated by the question of when exactly he will vacate 10 Downing St., presumably to make room for his long-time ally and sometime rival Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Blair is now the most unpopular Labour Prime Minister since World War II, with a 26% approval rating. Last week's local elections saw Labour take a drubbing, falling into third place behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. A YouGov poll now shows the Conservatives would beat Labour if a general election were held tomorrow, 37% to 31%.

Numbers like these concentrate the minds of Labour MPs. Certainly they feel gratitude to Blair for leading them out of the political wilderness into power, and they also share a tribal conviction, seared into their consciousness from 17 years of Tory rule in the 1980s and 90s, that disunity equals death. But now even Blair loyalists are thinking he may be past his expiration date.

Over the weekend a passel of Brownites and left-wingers came out and practically said it, openly agitating for Blair to leave quickly. In response, they were virulently denounced by Blairites as wreckers of party unity, raising disturbing echoes of the bitter factionalism that used to dog Labour. The conflagration surely made Blair regret the promise he made last year, in order to secure Brown's enthusiastic participation in the general election campaign, to stand down by the end of this parliament, which is expected to end with elections in 2009. For a British Prime Minister fixing a term starts a slippery slope towards irrelevance, as the press, public and ambitious MPs start looking toward the next in line.

Blair has tried to brush off the recent bad news by playing on his reputation for strong leadership. He thoroughly reshuffled his Cabinet last week, even removing his longtime foreign minister Jack Straw, as if to say: I'm still in charge. At a Monday press conference, as well as at a gathering of Labour MPs, Blair declared he absolutely would not specify a timetable for departure.

But by Tuesday it looked like he would have trouble fending off the calls for his exit. John Denham, a well-respected Blairite MP, said there should be an orderly transition, and that "people now want to see some evidence of it" — code for a timetable. And Brown, who feels Blair has led him down the garden path before on his departure plans, has apparently decided it's now or never.

In a spate of interviews Tuesday, he said that Blair should fix a date precisely by telling a group of senior MPs when he's leaving. He even raised the historical precedent of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was chucked out of power after an unseemly brawl among Tory MPs.

The sources of Blair's woes are numerous, but the overarching one, as for his friend across the Atlantic George W. Bush, is (what else?) Iraq. The war sapped his reputation for honesty as people came to think he massaged the intelligence and ignored contrary evidence in order to make the case for the conflict.

His government's standing has also been buffeted by multiple scandals. His deputy, John Prescott, was exposed as having an affair with his appointments secretary. The husband of Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is alleged to have taken bribes from outgoing Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Home Secretary Charles Clarke was forced out when it was revealed that his department had ignored repeated warnings that dangerous foreign prisoners were being released when their sentences were up rather than being considered for deportation. And Scotland Yard is examining whether Labour Party figures may have effectively sold places in the House of Lords to people who made big loans or donations to the party.

Blair's style of governing is also coming back to haunt him. He has often upraided his own party for being slow to modernize. That worked while he was a winner, but now that he's in decline, MPs who have built up years of resentment for being ignored and tightly managed by Downing St. apparatchiks have an opportunity for revenge. Many are focusing their anger on Blair's reforms.

The National Health Service, for instance, has absorbed huge amounts of new money under Labour, and many health indicators are improving. But lots of hospitals are having to lay off staff because they've overspent; many doctors and nurses say the NHS is badly run. Meanwhile, Blair is pushing to let state schools have greater autonomy, which traditional Labour MPs think will lead to sharply unequal quality and hurt those at the bottom of the social ladder.

Adding venom to all these policy disagreements is the titanic battle for power and influence between the Blair and Brown camps. Though the men don't have deep differences over policy, what they do have is a major personality clash — one that pits two deeply ambitious men, who have been joined for 20 years in a common enterprise of making the Labour Party powerful, against each other. They respect and need each other, but they are also clearly sick of the weird political marriage that has tied them together over the years.

That marriage's endurance has rested on Brown's firm conviction that he will ultimately get the top job and will fare better in it if the transition is orderly. But such an orderly transition is now endangered, and in a way that was predictable. The brutal law of a parliamentary system is that all careers must end in failure: if you stay as long as you possibly can, lots of people will be happy to see you go. Which means that Tony Blair, who hoped to burnish his reputation with a slew of reformist legislation before passing the torch to Brown, will probably not get the dignified departure he so badly wanted.