Before the general election in 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would step down before the next one, due in 2010 at the latest. Since then, his days in Downing Street have been numbered. The trouble is, nobody has known what that precise number would be.
For the past five years, Chancellor and heir apparent Gordon Brown has been trying to pry that figure from the Labour leader by forcing him to set a date. By all accounts the two men loathe each other. When Blair returned from vacation in late August to say he wouldn’t set a timetable for his departure, discontent spread to some of his supporters in Parliament. After a spate of midlevel resignations and two tempestuous meetings with Brown, Blair said this September’s Labour conference would be his last.
When it comes to dysfunctional relationships lived in public, Blair and Brown have shown about as much class as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (no relation) without even a scintilla of the entertainment value. What is worse, for the last decade an indecent portion of the British left has become embroiled in this quarrel as though the two men’s career paths represent principled ideological differences. Midlife crises have been elevated to affairs of state; petulance masquerades as principle.
Two principal factors have brought Blair’s premiership to this point–his foreign policy and the presence of a new, viable Conservative leader. Both raise serious and urgent questions about Labour’s direction; the trouble is that Brown has so far proven himself incapable of answering them.
The week Blair was first elected, in 1997, he told Labour MPs, "We are not the master now. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people." Within five years he had become a servant of the Bush Administration.
The war in Iraq has always been hugely unpopular; the obstruction of an early cease-fire in Lebanon was even more so. The week the feud between Brown and Blair was at its most intense coincided with the one in which Britain suffered its greatest number of casualties in Afghanistan and NATO conceded that the mission there could fail without more troops.
A poll in September revealed that almost three-quarters of the British public (73 percent) believe that "the British Government’s foreign policy–especially its support for the invasion of Iraq and refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire by Israel in the recent war against Hezbollah in Lebanon–has significantly increased the risk of terrorist attacks on Britain."
Moreover, almost two-thirds (62 percent) agree that "in order to reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks on Britain the Government should change its foreign policy, in particular by distancing itself from America, being more critical of Israel and declaring a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq."