New baby gives Blair needed lift

May 28, 2000|By Louise Branson

THE BABY boy named Leo born last weekend to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, has arrived with perfect timing --just, that is, as his overlong political honey-moon was starting to show signs of flagging. President Clinton has every reason, as he indeed indicated last month, to be envious.

The Blair baby hoopla is for now keeping the just-starting cracks from growing wide. Who knows, with luck like this Mr. Blair's career at the apex of power could last a decade, longer. Or more. Unlike in America, there are no term limits on Britain's top job.

Britain's young prime minister -- and 47 is a baby itself in political terms -- was supposed, rather than to surpass Mr. Clinton, to be his disciple. He freely acknowledged the American president as his political mentor, after all, as he swept by a landslide to power 3 1/2 years ago.

So much was borrowed from Mr. Clinton at the time: The re-making of the old left-wing Labor Party into New Labor, a middle-ground party with yuppie appeal; distancing himself from the fanatical trade unions, which were the traditional support of Old Labor; his super-spin machine; attracting pop singers and film stars to No. 10 Downing Street.

Not to speak of Tony himself, a relaxed Clintonesque figure, an ordinary bloke who connects with Middle England and feels the pain as well as the hopes and the joys of people in the small towns of Shropshire or Buckinghamshire.

It was a touch of brilliance, for example, when Mr. Blair came out and called the popular, pop-culture Princess Diana the "people's princess" just after she died. That was far more than her erstwhile mother-in-law, the queen. She remained tight-lipped until forced to behave more humanly in the face of tabloid-led outrage.

People, however, are fickle. Nobody likes too much of a good thing. Or of even a successful leader- (as Maggie Thatcher learned at her expense when she was unceremoniously dumped by her Conservative Party for no apparent reason other than that they had tired of her arrogance). And so, too, with Tony. The bickering against him grows louder.

News stories referred to him as a "control freak" and even "Chairman Tony" in reference to the obsessive way he tries to keep things, and particularly politicians in his party, under his control This, it seemed, could be his fatal flaw, his Achilles heel. Britain's public was starting to smell blood, if only a few small drops.

Mr. Blair also has been looking vulnerable over changes he has made to pattern Britain ever more along American democratic lines.

He has envisaged the different parts of Britain -- England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, perhaps eventually other bits of England - as becoming a bit like America's states, with more power, though with ultimate control in London. Which was how Scotland came to have its own limited parliament, Now, however, Scotland is showing signs of wanting complete independence. Mr. Blair (control freak?) has been going all out to try to stop that.

I have not lived in Britain, my home country, for more than 20 years. When I visited recently, I was shocked to find it like a mini-America physically and in spirit. The country seemed overrun by McDonald's restaurants, health clubs and theme parks. People talked of "E.R.' on TV and "Erin Brockovich" at the movies. Newspapers were so full of stories about America it was as if it lay just across the English Channel --France, which is there, merited many fewer.

I wondered if the changes owed more to the globalization of Hollywood or to the Americanizing prime minister. The direction certainly seemed unstoppable: When I wanted to take my two young sons to see Big Ben, for example, my brothers tried to convince me that a new theme park would be far more fun. Arguments about heritage and culture didn't seem to wash.

Good thing or bad?

Who knows. What is certain is that Mr. Blair has decided Old England cannot survive and prosper, especially, when Hollywood so captures the world's popular imagination. He has pushed his country -- which was heading in that direction anyway-- firmly on an American course (rather than jumping headlong into Europe, which Britons still distrust). At first, Mr. Blair studied Bill Clinton the master for ways to make New England work.

But now, he is, it seems, taking Clintonism further as his master passes into the twilight. Beginning with Baby Blair. An unplanned mid-life surprise maybe, but one that could not have been better orchestrated by the Comeback Kid himself.

Louise Branson is a British-born author and journalist who lives in the Washington area.

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