Blair Steps Down With Mixed Emotions

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Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at Trimdon Labour Club in his constituency of Sedgfield, May 10, 2007.

The images are somber, almost funereal, the voices of the broadcasters hushed. It's all in keeping with a day that the British media and the government, in a rare show of unity, agree is momentous. Ten years and nine days after Tony Blair first swept to power, the Prime Minister has finally given his restive rivals and critical compatriots the news they wanted to hear: He's off.

He didn't put it like that, of course. The master showman who can summon up a sense of grand occasion from the most pedestrian of circumstances wasn't going to underplay this one. In a virtuoso performance, he reminded everyone just what an extraordinary orator they'll be missing. He spoke of the isolation of power: "Sometimes," he said, "you are alone with your instinct." It is an instinct that has taken him on military adventures that have eroded his once soaring popularity. Even as some of his most fervent supporters fear his legacy is now badly tarnished, the Prime Minister is troubled by no uncertainties. "Hand on heart," he pledged. "I did what I thought was right."

His first farewell (there is sure to be another when he leaves Downing Street for good) took place at high noon in Sedgefield, his constituency in northeast England, which he's represented in Parliament since 1983. Today he stepped down as Labour party leader; he will relinquish the keys to Number 10 after tendering his formal resignation as Prime Minister to the Queen on June 27. He revealed these plans to his closest colleagues at a Cabinet meeting at the start of the day. Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, emerged first, after an evidently action-packed 15 minutes, to report that "Gordon paid a very fulsome tribute to Tony." "Gordon" is, of course, Gordon Brown, Blair's longtime Chancellor of the Exchequer. Blair last week paid his own tribute to Brown, confirming him as his choice as successor, despite a turbulent relationship. Their early friendship contorted into rivalry as a rumored pact for Brown to take on the leadership after Blair had served two terms went sour.

This weekend, the Labour party executive committee will decide on the exact timetable for a leadership contest, which is expected to last seven weeks. But all the other possible heavyweight contenders have already ruled themselves out, leaving the path clear for Brown. "Is Gordon Brown Prime Minister now?" asked a pupil from the Greydanus school in Zwolle, Northern Holland, peering through the gates of Downing Street as the Cabinet members dispersed, most in limousines but some braver pols on foot, picking their way through camera crews, confused tourists and a quartet of shivering bikini-clad models who had been dispatched to Westminster by a men's magazine to try to steal some of Blair's limelight.

Blair insists that his last weeks in office will be productive and focused, with a series of policy initiatives planned to anchor the public services reforms he initiated. Yet no matter how skilfully he orchestrates his farewells, it's clear that some of his power has already leached away. "What color will Gordon's room be?" shouts a photographer to decorators who arrive, on this of all days, to freshen up the Prime Minister's residence. At the end of the street, there's a strange void: the spot reserved for protestors, where opponents of government's policy in Iraq usually jostle for space with animal rights protestors, stands empty. There's not much point in waving placards at yesterday's man.

"This is the government of the living dead." The gibe David Cameron, leader of the Conservative opposition, delivered yesterday during his weekly chance to grill the Prime Minister in the House of Commons was meant to sting. Blair responded vigorously, but there was a poignancy to the sight of the veteran politician, now grizzled and dependent on reading glasses, being taunted a buoyant mirror image of his young self. The contrast between Cameron, 40, and Blair's successor will be even more sharply delineated. Brown may be the co-architect of New Labour, but his style still owes more to an earlier era of politics. At 56, he's two years older than Blair, but he is expected to reduce the average age of the Cabinet by bringing in younger talent. He'll also have a new Deputy Prime Minister. Blair's accident-prone sidekick, John Prescott, is leaving, and a contest to replace him will run in parallel to any leadership race.

"Think back. No really, think back to 1997," Blair urged in his resignation speech, as he made a plea for the positive legacy of his leadership. In Sedgefield and across Britain, eyes and nostalgia welled. Yet as he spoke, his party colleagues back in Westminster were already canvassing furiously, making alliances and doing deals, all looking forward, some with optimism, many with trepidation, to a different era under Gordon Brown.