He finally did it. On Sept. 7, Tony Blair announced that he would step down as prime minister of Britain sometime within the next 12 months. Blair’s decision was spurred by a letter from a group of previously loyal MPs requesting that he leave office for the good of the Labor Party. Blair was careful not to specify a precise date of departure, leading to speculation that he would remain in office at least until the local elections in May 2007. Media reports echoed the conventional wisdom that Gordon Brown, the current chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) and the prime minister’s longtime heir apparent and rival for the party leadership, would succeed Blair as prime minister.
Blair’s reluctance to be pinned down to a precise date provoked allegations of vanity and self-delusion. The mainstream media attempted to justify his clinging to power by referring to his "quest for a domestic legacy" and the "desire to complete 10 years in office as prime minister." This fails to explain, however, the lame-duck prime minister’s renewed efforts to breath life into a rapidly decomposing Mideast “peace process," a task that, if taken seriously, must surely dominate a substantial portion of his remaining time in office. Nor does anyone seriously believe (Blair included) that his 10th anniversary in office will magically transform his current status at home from liar and villain into hero and statesman. Unable to counter these obvious criticisms, the media chose to preoccupy itself with Britain’s favorite political soap opera: Blair vs. Brown. Had an impatient Brown finally organized a coup against Blair? Was Brown a Judas? Had they really screamed blue murder at each other? Was it "stupid" for Brown to smile behind Blair’s back in front of the TV cameras? No one bothered to ask the really important question: Was there any connection between Blair’s determination to remain in 10 Downing St. for another year and the hellhole known as Iraq?
Some may argue that Blair needs time to score an 11th-hour foreign policy triumph that will confound his critics and restore faith in his "global vision." This is sheer fantasy. Iraq’s accelerating bloodshed and disintegration is destined to eclipse all of Blair’s supposed achievements. In British political circles, Iraq will always be remembered as Blair’s war. Haunted by this, Blair is desperate to conjure a form of collective guilt for his criminal misjudgment. He must therefore promote a successor who will adhere to his foreign policy. If successful, Blair and his courtiers will be in a position to blame subsequent governments for "losing Iraq" a virtual certainty.
Blair’s opposition to Brown as his successor stems from the fact that he cannot trust Brown to drink from this poisoned chalice. Brown’s views on Iraq are far from clear, and the temptation to storm ahead in the opinion polls by withdrawing British troops from Iraq might prove too great. Which brings us to the real reason Blair cannot resign immediately: he needs time to groom an indisputably loyal alternative to Brown. The safest candidate is the prime minister’s staunchest ally, the current Home Secretary John Reid.
Reid has been Blair’s faithful Rottweiler throughout the latter’s tenure as prime minister, dedicated to savaging both the opposition and Labor colleagues deemed to be insufficiently "Blairite." Reid’s political career is a case study in opportunism, and even parliamentary and ideological enemies such as George Galloway give him top marks for his effectiveness as arch-evangelist in the Church of Blair. As defense secretary, however, Reid set a new standard for wishful thinking earlier this year when he boasted that the British-led NATO mission in southern Afghanistan was likely to achieve its aim of neutralizing the Taliban without firing a shot.
Ironically, it was the sober but politically incorrect judgment of another cabinet minister that helped pull a burning Reid from the fire. Jack Straw’s faux pas of describing the idea of a nuclear attack against Iran as “nuts” quickly ended his career as foreign secretary. The ensuing cabinet reshuffle, however, created a timely opening for Reid at the Home Office.
Reid’s confident handling of the August terrorist “threat” as home secretary left the mainstream media breathless and appealed to a large segment of British society prone to xenophobia and vulnerable to transatlantic "War on Terror" rhetoric. Reid currently trails Gordon Brown in opinion polls, but some further well-timed, high-profile arrests could narrow the gap. Indeed, it is arguable that the timing of the August arrests (made during Tony Blair’s holiday absence) was designed to raise Reid’s profile as a contender for leader of the Labor Party, as well as to assert Blair’s authority as king-maker.
A Reid victory over Brown would protect the foreign policy status quo for the remainder of the current Labor government. Nor is it likely to be overturned in the next UK general election two or three years from now. Despite the occasional token protest or blustery speech, the main opposition Conservatives’ views on Iraq are nearly indistinguishable from official Labor policy, and there is little prospect of real change. Incredibly, some Conservatives would actually strengthen the foreign policy ties, assuming this were possible, between Britain and the United States. In terms of foreign policy choice, therefore, the British electorate will effectively be disenfranchised. Nor is this calculation likely to be upset by the American presidential elections in 2008. The total absence of antiwar voices among the 2008 presidential front-runners appears to guarantee critical long-term American support for Blair’s foreign policy.
An uninterrupted parliamentary endorsement of Blair’s foreign policy would also give Blair a shot at the post of secretary-general of NATO, an appointment he would undoubtedly exploit to rehabilitate his tarnished international reputation. (His former ally the ex-Spanish PM José María Aznar, another politician badly wrong-footed by Iraq, appears to have similar plans. Aznar’s recent interview on the BBC Hardtalk program could have been easily mistaken for an audition for the same role.)
Far from seeking meaningless records in office, Tony Blair is devising a strategy that will gradually divert criticism leveled at him over Iraq by engineering a continuation of his foreign policy well beyond his time as prime minister. It’s a task well suited to an accomplished political escape artist aided by an official opposition hardly worthy of the name.