New year to usher in end of Blair era in Britain

In a democracy, a change in political leadership is usually not a foregone conclusion. But in 2007, Britain will make an exception by saying goodbye to the Blair era and installing Gordon Brown as his successor without a vote.

The unprecedented situation arises from a promise of a handover of power Prime Minister Tony Blair gave his Labour Party colleague many years ago, and which has come to haunt the British leader.

Under pressure from party critics, and Brown supporters (Brownites), Blair was forced last September to commit himself publicly to his departure from Downing Street “within a year”.

Now everyone knows that Blair (53) will be gone once he has celebrated his 10th anniversary in power in May 2007. Exactly when Brown will take over remains a matter for speculation.

But there seems little doubt that the 55-year-old Chancellor of the Exchequer has sufficient support within the Labour Party to take over the helm in a “coronation”, rather than having to compete for the top job in a leadership contest.

The next general election is not due until 2009 at the earliest.

While the Blairs are preparing for their “last Christmas in Downing Street”, Brown is getting ready for the move into Number 10, from his next door home at Number 11.

The end of the Blair era is also likely to signal the start of Britain’s disengagement from Iraq.
Already, the government has said that it hopes to hand over security responsibility in Iraq’s southern provinces, including Basra, to Iraqi forces by next March. The move would involve a withdrawal of British troops from the city of Basra to the airport on the outskirts.

From there, the British contingent, which could be cut by half from its present level of 7 200, would have an “overwatch” role. The British military death toll in Iraq is nearing 130, and the costs of the war have officially been put at £3,1-billion up to the end of March 2006.

Recent figures have shown that the cost of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will reach £1,4-billion this year—or the equivalent of £4-million a day.

Discreet silence

Brown, an Atlanticist who spends his annual summer holidays on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has publicly backed Blair on Iraq. But he has kept a discreet silence as the post-war situation spun out of control, leaving the impression that he might have done things differently.

Brown has stressed that Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States must be continued, but believes that “new ways” must be found to win the battle for “hearts and minds” in the so-called war on terror.

“Brown won’t order the troops home but he won’t sit on Bush’s knee in the way Blair has done,” said political commentator Stephen Wall.

However, after Iraq, there will still be Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan to tackle, commentators point out.

Brown, who in his 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer has gained vast experience on the international circuit, is expected to use good relations with the US to place much greater emphasis on global issues such as climate change and poverty.

He does not tire of stressing the need for Europe to answer the challenges posed by globalisation and the emergence of new economic superpowers such as China and India.

Brown has already proved his credentials as an ardent fighter against world poverty, joining forces with ex-rockers and philanthropists to draw attention to the plight of the world’s poor, especially in Africa.

Nonetheless, many Britons still feel unsure about what the enigmatic Brown really stands for.

“He could turn out to be a smart Socialist in a business suit or a Thatcherite disguised as a leftie,” one commentator said.

There will, inevitably, be a difference in style in how the government is run, away from the “spin” of the public-relations-driven policy of the Blair years to the ways of the more publicity-shy Brown.

“Tony is an actor; Gordon doesn’t frolick,” said anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof, relating that Brown had seemed “stricken” when Geldof once kissed him on both cheeks for a greeting.—Sapa-dpa

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