Behind Tony Blair's Downfall

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Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair waves as he leaves a technology school in London Thursday Sept. 7, 2006.

"All political careers end in failure." Tony Blair is the latest proof of this well-worn aphorism by the right-wing MP Enoch Powell. Blair came to power in 1997 buoyed by a huge parliamentary majority and even bigger expectations of what New Labour could accomplish. He led his party to two more general election victories, the last only 15 months ago. Yet today he's on the ropes, forced by an overwhelming tide of opinion in his party and the country to say when he'll leave Downing Street — or face the humiliation of being forced out. In a public statement Thursday (no questions permitted), he confirmed hints from Cabinet allies that he'd quit within a year, but rebuffed calls for a specific timetable. Still seeking some running room, he said, "I will do that at a future date; and I'll do it in the interests of the country and in the circumstances of the time."

The fundamental cause of his demise is the Iraq war. While Americans seemed to forgive George Bush the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite his promises to the contrary, Blair's authority never recovered. A poll conducted for TIME just before the general election in May 2005 found that 51% of British people surveyed considered him dishonest; he was the most unpopular Prime Minister ever to be re-elected. Moreover, his skill in selling the war has only added to the burden he must bear for the mess in Iraq that continues to get worse despite three years of U.S. and British occupation. According to a poll released yesterday by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, British support for American leadership in foreign affairs has never been lower — a policy whose poster boy is Tony Blair. This summer, even some of Blair's Cabinet loyalists were upset when he once more forcefully backed a deeply unpopular Bush policy: refusing to criticize Israel's strategy or tactics in Lebanon or call for an immediate cease-fire. Blair's transformation today into official lame duck means all the European leaders who backed the Iraq war — Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Poland's Leszek Miller — have paid the ultimate political price.

All the same, if you ask a Labour MP why Blair's in trouble, the first answer isn't Baghdad but Brown — Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The two men have been allies and rivals for two decades. Brown's overwhelming ambition for the top job and contempt for Blair as an intellectual lightweight have been held in check only by his conviction, born of Labour's agonies in the 1980s, that inheriting a disunited party would mean electoral self-immolation. To get Brown's full-throated support during the 2005 election, Blair was forced to promise to quit before the next one — something he has always regretted. And while an orderly transition is obviously desirable for the Labour Party, it has fallen prey to the logic of personal ambition in a parliamentary system. A Prime Minister on his way out just doesn't have the juice: his threats of punishment and promises of advancement ring hollow. MPs start jockeying for the next guy's approval — and the bitter feud between Blair and Brown means no one wants to be the last to jump from the sinking S.S. Blair.

Blair has continually refused to specify when he'll retire. When he reiterated that in an interview last week, however, one of those strange tipping points in politics was galvanized. Without Brown's apparent direction, a slew of backbenchers decided Blair was becoming an electoral liability they could no longer ignore. The Conservatives, under their new telegenic leader David Cameron, were ahead in a recent poll by 9 points, which is shocking to a Labour Party that has been ahead for more than a decade, and many Labour activists are worried about regional elections scheduled for the spring. A Downing St. memo leaked earlier this week reinforced backbench MPs' conviction that waiting any longer for Blair to go voluntarily could be dangerous; it showed his loyalists inhabiting a dream world where they planned to orchestrate a triumphal exit lasting many months, including appearances on children's TV shows, overnight stays in half a dozen cities, and visiting the 20 most striking buildings built during his term of office. "He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won't even play that last encore," said the astounding document.

The next day, one junior minister and seven other low-ranking members of the government resigned, including some long-time Blair supporters. The resignation letter of one of them, Khalid Mahmood, summed up their unhappiness with the Prime Minister: "The party and the Labour government's work is more important than any individual. Sadly, I feel that your remaining in office no longer serves the best interests of the party or the country." The ensuing turmoil precipitated furious arguments yesterday between Brown and Blair and fevered efforts by their surrogates to work out a decorous transition — resulting in Blair's announcement today. Brown pledged his support in advance of Blair's statement today "for the decisions he makes; this should not be about private arrangements but about what is in the best interests of our party and most importantly our country, and I will support him in doing exactly that." That still leaves plenty of room for squabbling between them, and between their loyal vassals.

But internal rancor in the Labour Party will hardly benefit the man who plans to run it next. Among uber-Blairites there is talk of running a stop-Brown candidate for party leader, but that's near hopeless. Brown has a lock on the job. Once he gets it, he will have a problem similar to Al Gore's as he ran to succeed Bill Clinton as president in 2000: how to differentiate himself from a boss who, whatever his present weaknesses, has been a phenomenal success as a politician, and with whom he has few serious policy disagreements. "Obviously, Brown has to have an agenda both of continuity and of change to succeed," says Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, a Labour-affiliated advocacy group. "Labour has had the most successful left-of-center government in 50 years, so successful that it has converted the Conservative Party into speaking its language of reform." But British voters loathe divided parties. Blair pointedly started his statement by "apologiz(ing) on behalf of the Labour Party for the last week" of coup plotting and leaks. That was self-serving, but it also captured a powerful truth. Unless the post-Blair Blairites are disciplined enough to show Brown more loyalty than Brownites have shown to Blair, Labour could find itself paying a steep electoral price for allowing the strange Shakespearean struggle between Prime Minister and Chancellor to run so long.