British Prime Minister Tony Blair will celebrate 10 years in power next week, a landmark clouded by growing questions over his legacy as he prepares finally to stand down.
The Iraq war and a “cash-for-honours” corruption probe over party funding both threaten to tarnish his image and overshadow Britain’s booming economic success of the last decade.
Blair has until now disclosed nothing about how and when he will fulfil his promise to step down this year, in the middle of his third term in power, but an announcement is expected in the second week of May.
Nor has he said anything about his successor, who is expected to take over in the last days of June.
But for several weeks, Blair has sought to defend his record and his place in history.
He has stressed the decade of economic prosperity that has transformed Britain, the billions of pounds poured into health and education reform and the drop in crime.
He has defended his “interventionist foreign policy, driven by values”, his alliance with Washington, “not simply when the going is easy”, and refused to apologise for and admit failure in Iraq.
In 1997, with a full head of hair and a broad smile, Blair entered power at 43 years of age on a wave of popular enthusiasm, becoming the youngest British prime minister since 1812.
With the Conservative opposition decimated, he led his Labour party to an unprecedented three straight terms in power.
During the Blair years, the Bank of England gained independence, the minimum wage was introduced, Scotland and Wales obtained lawmaking powers, the Good Friday peace agreement was struck in Northern Ireland, gay people obtained “marriage” rights and the use of private funding was introduced in health and education.
And before he bows out, Blair, his hair now greying and thinning, is to celebrate on May 8 his most obvious success: the revival of power-sharing between Roman Catholics and Protestants in a peaceful Northern Ireland.
Late last year, one of his advisers said in a memo: “He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won’t even play the last encore.”
Reality has turned out differently.
Blair announced in October 2004 that his third term would be his last. But he is leaving earlier than he hoped, pushed out by a “coup” mounted in September last year by Gordon Brown, his Finance Minister and long-time rival.
With less than 30% support among voters in the opinion polls, the Labour Party has hit an historic low, left in the wake of a revived Conservative Party.
His image has been tarnished by a probe into shady party election financing in which he has been questioned by police as a witness, though not as a suspect. Blair had come to power pledging to clean up politics.
Fifty-seven percent of Britons believe he has stayed too long in power, 45% think he is no longer in tune with them, while 49 percent seem him as a manipulator.
They have never forgiven him for Iraq, and they are not very impressed with his health and education reforms, according to a recent poll in the Observer weekly.
However, Blair appears unperturbed and sure of his decisions.
“It’s always difficult when you’re in a third term and you’re mid-term,” Blair said in a BBC interview on April 15.
“In the last few years I’ve tried to do what I really think is right, take difficult decisions on behalf of the country, that I think are in the country’s long-term interests and in the end, that is, I’m content to be judged in the long term,” Blair said.
And what will the verdict be?
Philip Stephens of the Financial Times thinks current criticism of Blair will “mellow” with time, as it did with Conservative leader of the 1980s Margaret Thatcher.
“Mr Blair is the most accomplished politician of his generation,” Stephens told foreign journalists.
However, historian Dominic Sandbrook thinks his legacy is uncertain.
“Just as [United States President Richard] Nixon never threw off the albatross of Watergate, so Blair may never step out from the shadow of Iraq,” Sandbrook said in the Observer.
“Curiously enough, he may be remembered not for what he did, but for what he failed to do,” he said. — AFP