Facing mutiny, Blair says he'll quit within year

September 08, 2006|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON -- Fighting to prolong his political life and preserve his legacy in the face of an escalating revolt within his party, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced yesterday that he would resign within a year.

But Blair refused to set a specific timetable for his departure. And his assurance that this month's annual Labor Party conference would be his last as the party's leader might not be enough to quell the mutiny.

He will likely go down as one of Britain's most successful politicians, but his approval rating plummeted when he aligned Britain with the United States against Iraq and sent British troops to fight in an unpopular war. His loyalty to President Bush has been viewed with distaste by many Britons.

Long derided by critics as the U.S. president's "poodle," he suffered a further blow in July at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. An open microphone caught a chat in which he seemed embarrassingly subservient to Bush.

Anger over his handling of this summer's Middle East fighting and anxiety over the party's slide in the polls fueled the rank and file's impatience for him to leave quickly, or at least to say when he planned to go. Blair's refusal to call for an early end to the fighting in Lebanon was the final provocation for many once-loyal supporters.

Blair, who 16 months ago led Labor to an unprecedented third consecutive term in power, said he would have preferred to orchestrate his departure "in my own way" and insisted that the "precise timetable has to be left up to me."

The end has not quite arrived, but his announcement likely signals the beginning of the final chapter and a period of uncertainty in which Blair will struggle against the paralysis that comes with being a lame duck.

Few political analysts believe Blair will last 12 months. Most say he will resign as party leader in May, triggering a six-week leadership battle that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, is expected to win. Blair would then step aside as prime minister in favor of Brown.

Blair and Brown are the co- architects of the New Labor strategy that led the party back to power after 18 years in the wilderness, but beneath a facade of party unity and bonhomie, the two are fierce political rivals.

From the first day that Blair took up residence at No. 10 Downing St., it was understood that someday he would step aside for Brown. The "when" and "how" has been one of the enduring subplots of Blair's nine-year premiership.

When Labor lost ground in the last general election and Blair's approval ratings continued to sag, the question of succession gained urgency.

Blair tried to put the issue to rest Sunday in an interview with London's Times newspaper in which he said it would be a mistake to set a specific timetable and urged opponents to "stop obsessing" on the matter.

Instead of mollifying the critics, the interview galvanized them. Labor backbenchers, many of them worried about their electoral prospects in the face of polls that show Labor trailing the Conservatives by 9 or 10 points, began circulating letters demanding that Blair set a date for his departure.

Things quickly spiraled out of control. By Wednesday, a junior minister and seven parliamentary aides had quit in protest and more were threatening to follow. Blair and Brown had had at least one face-to-face meeting that featured a "ferocious shouting match between the two men," according to The Guardian.

With his party on the brink of civil war, Blair capitulated, but not totally. "I am not going to say a precise date now, I don't think that is right," he said. "I will do that at a future date, and I will do it in the interest of the country and depending on the circumstances at the time."

That appeared to be enough to satisfy Brown, who spent yesterday visiting a sports training ground in Glasgow, Scotland, and made a statement about an hour before Blair spoke in London.

"I want to make it absolutely clear today, that when I met the prime minister yesterday, I said to him - as I've said on many occasions and I repeat today - it is for him to make the decision," said the chancellor.

"I said also to him ... that I will support him in the decision he makes," Brown added.

Brown is considered the odds-on favorite to succeed Blair as the party's leader, but others are expected to join the contest. Brown has had little to say on foreign policy, but it is likely that whoever succeeds Blair will try to distance himself from Bush.

Several scenarios for Blair's departure have been circulating among political insiders. One has him resigning the party leadership in early May, allowing Brown to move into No. 10 by mid-June. This has apparently met with Brown's approval.

Another proposal pushes the date to the end of May, meaning Brown would not take over until the middle of July, when parliament is in recess. Brown has reportedly rejected this.

But some of Brown's supporters say Blair should go much sooner - before the end of this year or early next year at the latest.

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