Britain's Blair to Depart June 27

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says he will leave his post June 27, after 10 years on the job. Times of London columnist Matthew Parris, who served in Parliament as a Tory, discusses Blair's decade in power.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is the day that Britain's Tony Blair begins stepping down.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Today, I announce my decision to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party. The party will now select a new leader. On the 27th of June, I will tender my resignation from the office of prime minister to the queen.

INSKEEP: So he quits as party leader, then as prime minister. He was a modernizer of the Labour Party, a U.S. ally much attacked for his support of the war in Iraq, winning one final election despite his own unpopularity.

Here's how a voter named Fiona McLaren(ph) summed it up when we found her in London's Exmouth Market.

Ms. FIONA McLAREN (British Voter): He started out as a young and funky guy. We were all very excited to have him as a prime minister, and unfortunately, he didn't give.

INSKEEP: Let's get some analysis from Matthew Parris, the Times of London columnist and former conservative Member of Parliament.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATTHEW PARRIS (Columnist, Times; Former Conservative Member of Parliament, United Kingdom): Hello.

INSKEEP: Even if you're tired of Tony Blair, is this is a sad day?

Mr. PARRIS: No, not for those of us that are Blairophobes, and I don't represent myself as an objective observer. I'm a columnist who has been critical of him from the start, and I think the person you spoke to said he started out as a young, funky guy was absolutely right. That is how he started out. The trouble is that funk doesn't age well. And 10 years of funk can go fairly stale, and he has stayed on for too long. This announcement is overdue.

INSKEEP: Is it worth mentioning what he did right at the beginning at this point?

Mr. PARRIS: He made a lot of promises right at the beginning. Very few of them have really come to pass. He did, however, capture the spirit of the age, perhaps better than any modern British politician has succeeded in doing.

He was a very 21st century prime minister. He understood Britain to be a changing country - a much more tolerant, much more inclusive, much more open sort of country than it had been. And because the opposition, the conservative party seemed so rooted in the 20th century. And because he seemed so much part of the way life was changing in Britain and because for the last 10 years we've been in a period of considerable economic prosperity, he has hung on.

INSKEEP: We spoke with a voter in London named Victoria Cork(ph) who said she was disappointed in all the red tape that Blair's government brought to the U.K. Can you explain for Americans what that complaint is about?

Mr. PARRIS: His has been a government without any clear ideological direction, except to leave in place many of the economic changes that his predecessors bequeathed to him. And yet, he personally has always been restless to communicate a sense of action, energy, momentum and direction. And I think the conflict between a government that didn't have much big to do and a government that wanted to talk as though it was doing a lot has resolved itself into a lot of very fidgety legislation, what we call the nanny-state legislation - little bits of red tape here, little bits of bureaucracy, and...

INSKEEP: What sort of things do you have to do now that you didn't have to do 10 years ago?

Mr. PARRIS: Well, to give one example, benefits. Welfare benefits are now exceedingly complicated. The forms that people have to fill in in order to get benefits are now so complicated that a large number of people entitled to welfare benefits are simple not claiming them. Pensioner benefits have been increased for the poor, but the poor have to fill out forms to show that they're poor, and a lot of pensioners don't want to do it.

Schools don't have the power that they used to have to expel troublesome pupils, and that's causing problems with discipline in schools.

There's been an awful lot of what we call nanny-state legislation, and it's beginning to irritate people.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the man who is likely to succeed Blair, almost certain to succeed him. Gordon Brown becomes the leader of the Labour Party, and within a few months then, the prime minister. Here's what a couple of voters had to say about him.

Mr. ASHLEY CARTER (British Voter): I have a lot of hopes, you know, because I do generally believe he's a man of stature.

Mr. RAJEEV NAIR(ph) (British Voter): He's obviously an intellectual heavyweight within the cabinet. He's very highly regarded in that regard. But he is not a people person. He doesn't relate, and I think, the electorates in the general world aren't going to warm to him.

INSKEEP: Ashley Carter and Rajeev Nair, two British voters. And Mr. Parris, who is this man?

Mr. PARRIS: Well, he is, at the moment, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is to say minister of finance, and he has been, through the whole of the Blair decade. And it's been a decade of considerable prosperity and low unemployment, and for that reason, Gordon Brown has become associated with economic solidity and economic success.

He is, personally, rather a dull public figure. He's a Scot, and amongst the English, there is something of a feeling that there are too many Scots at the top in government. He's pretty dour. He's pretty grumpy. He's pretty Presbyterian. That's what some people like about him. He hasn't got the kind of the fly public-podium charm that Tony Blair exudes, so he's thought to be solid. Whether he will be or not, we shall see.

INSKEEP: Mr. Parris, thanks very much.

Mr. PARRIS: It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times of London.

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Blair Risked Much in Support of U.S.-U.K. Friendship

Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street.

hide captionBritish Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street on May 9, 2007.

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been in office for 10 years, said Thursday that he will step down June 27. The United States and Britain enjoy a "special relationship," a term that Winston Churchill coined in 1946 and that British and American leaders have echoed ever since. But no one has offered as much enthusiasm, or risked such political cost, as Blair.

Blair internalized the special relationship, analysts say: He wasn't just pro-American; he was American — at least in temperament and political style.

Blair was catapulted to power in 1997, propelled by a public thirst for change reflected in his party's theme song, "Things Can Only Get Better." Blair was "New Labor," not to be confused with "Old Labor," which was widely considered out-of-touch and unelectable.

The new prime minister brought Hollywood flair and American-style pizzazz to 10 Downing Street. "Cool Britannia" was the slogan for the Blair years, and the women elected to parliament with him were dubbed "Blair's Babes."

Blair exuded optimism and possessed a natural ability to gauge the public mood. He demonstrated this when, just a few weeks after he took office, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family reacted coolly, much to the consternation of the British public, who adored Princess Diana. Blair interceded, convincing the queen to publicly mourn a woman now known as "The People's Princess."

Tony Blair believed wholeheartedly in the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, saying it was any British prime minister's "duty" to get along with his American counterpart. With President Clinton, this was easy; the two leaders were political soul mates, and Blair's centrist New Labor policies were Clintonesque.

Many analysts predicted Blair would have a rockier relationship with President Bush. They were wrong. The two leaders got along from the outset, partly because of their shared religious beliefs and Manichean world view. In an interview with PBS's Frontline, Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 to 2003, described the two leaders' first meeting at Camp David:

"It got off to a very good start, almost from the first syllable uttered, because Bush said to Blair, 'Welcome to Camp David, Tony. May I call you Tony?' And Blair said, 'Well, thank you for this warm welcome, George. May I call you George?' Then the president said to Blair, without any sort of ceremony or farce or some kind of grandiloquent statement, 'Well, what shall we talk about?' Blair said, 'We might as well start with the Middle East,' and Bush said, 'Good idea. Shall we do Iraq first?' "

Blair rallied to America's aid after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and committed British troops to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He did so despite opposition from a majority of British citizens. One million anti-war demonstrators marched in London's Trafalgar Square shortly before U.S. and British troops rolled into Iraq.

As British casualties in Iraq mounted, Blair's popularity plummeted. When he was first elected, 63 percent of Britons said he could be trusted, according to a recent poll by YouGov/Daily Telegraph. Today, that number is 22 percent. His unwavering support for the war in Iraq explains a lot of that decline.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who wrote a biography of Blair, voiced a view shared by many British voters:

"For all of his fervent loyalty, Blair has never really understood America — nor how little he and his country now matter in American calculations. ... His relationship was 'special' on only one side of the Atlantic."

In recent months, Tony Blair has been lampooned regularly in the British media as "Bush's poodle" — a caricature underscored by comments overheard during a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, last year. President Bush beckoned for the British prime minister by shouting "Yo, Blair."

Blair continues to defend his exceptionally close relationship with the United States, claiming that it has given Britain more clout on the world stage, and that it has led to progress on issues such as climate change. But he concedes that his unblinking support for the United States has hurt him politically.

"I am the person who above all can give evidence as to the difficulty and sometimes the political penalty you pay for a close relationship with the U.S., but we shouldn't give that up in any set of circumstances," Blair said recently.

Former Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle, a Blair critic, called that view "delusional."

"In the depths of night, he [Blair] must realize how very wrong he has judged where Britain's national interests lie," Kilfoyle said.

The man expected to succeed Blair, Gordon Brown, is also pro-American, but not as fervently so as Blair.

"Gordon Brown is a traditionalist, but he's clearly not going to have the warm personal relationship with Bush that Blair had," said Philip Stephens, a columnist with the Financial Times newspaper. "The special relationship is loosening."

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