LONDON, May 3 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair remains the most skilled political performer in Britain, but his drive toward Thursday's election and what he hopes will be a historic third term often appears to be a joyless march, in striking contrast with the bright promise of his first election in 1997.
The ebullience and sense of possibility that greeted the first Labor Party government in 18 years on that sunny May morning eight years ago are largely absent, replaced by far harsher views of Blair personally and by more critical judgments of what his New Labor project has accomplished -- or may yet accomplish if he wins another term.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at a Tuesday campaign event in Gloucester. With him is Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
(Pool Photo Stefan Rousseau Via Reuters)
In the months after Blair's first election, Britain was alive with anticipation, and Blair's ambitions ranged far beyond the goal of reforming his party to bring it back to power. He promised a radical, transforming government that would overhaul the welfare state, integrate Britain more fully into Europe and even re-brand Britain, in the term used by Blair and those around him. "Cool Britannia," they called the project, which proved to be more frivolous than effective.
For all the confidence in his ability to marshal closing campaign arguments against the opposition, Blair conveys the sense of someone in a race with himself over his own legacy, determined to leave a lasting imprint on his country before his political capital is depleted and his now-limited time expires.
Blair asks his fellow citizens to look past the anger over Iraq, his single most damaging political decision of the past eight years, to his overall record and to the unfinished domestic agenda of those first two terms. Outlining his vision at a rally Sunday in Hove on the seacoast south of London, he said, "I know there are always more things that we should do. I know there are disappointments. I know there will be disillusions and disagreements. Of course there had to be. That's not politics; that's life. But I also know this party can be proud of what it's achieved in eight years."
Some measure Blair's two terms more critically. In a newly updated conclusion to his book "Blair," Anthony Seldon writes, "Even if Blair manages to stay in office until 2008, as he hopes, the key question about his premiership will be, his election victories not withstanding, why did he not achieve more?" Blair has reformed his party, Seldon says, but not yet his country, leaving as an open question the ultimate verdict on his time in power.
Blair advisers and allies argue that he has accomplished much as prime minister and put into place changes that will bear fruit in a third term. They say his achievements already go far beyond reforming the Labor Party to make it more electable. "I think we've done more than temporarily exorcize demons," said David Miliband, a Labor member of Parliament and before that one of Blair's chief domestic policy advisers.
One critique argues that Blair's two terms mark the triumph of Thatcherism, the conservative economic and governmental changes implemented by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Blair embraced many of those reforms to help Labor win the election in 1997. In office, he has been cautious about radically reversing them.
But there is more to his tenure than mimicking Thatcher, said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. Travers argued that Blair and the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, have steered Britain on a course that puts it in a distinctive position between the United States on the right and the rest of Europe on the left. They have done this with market-driven economic policies similar to those of the United States, but unlike Thatcher, they have looked for modest ways to redistribute wealth and have embraced a social safety net more on the model of Europe. "It is a more progressive version of Thatcherism," he said.
Blair has guided Britain through significant changes, including constitutional reforms such as devolution -- the return of significant powers to Scotland and Wales -- and the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law. He brokered the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland in 1998, and while the situation there remains fragile, violence is down. In his second term, he raised spending on education and health care, with some results beginning to show.
But Blair's goal of modernizing the welfare state remains far from realized, partly because the project has proved to be more difficult than envisioned. There has also been an inevitable debate within his government about how far to go in pushing market-oriented reforms.
Rick Nye, who is with the polling firm Populus and previously worked with the Conservative Party, Labor's main opposition, said his conversations with people close to Blair suggest the prime minister wants to move quickly on that front if he wins a third term. "Other than bringing a historic third victory, most of his ambitions are to update the welfare state, making it respond to middle-class values," Nye said. "If he can't do that, the middle class will desert the welfare state and make their own arrangements, and it will undermine the whole project."
Blair has also moved slowly in pursuing his ambitions for Europe. He once hoped to lead Britain into adopting the European single currency but, at the insistence of Brown, has repeatedly put off a referendum, citing economic conditions. Last week, he pushed that even further onto the back burner. A referendum on a European constitution looms if France approves it later this spring, and it is not clear whether Blair can get Britain to accept it.
Under Blair, "the Labor Party has become more comfortable with Europe," said Denis MacShane, the European minister in the Labor government. "Blair's third-term challenge is to make the whole country at ease as a leading European nation, and he is the person who can do that."
Iraq dominated Blair's second term, but Miliband said seeds planted for domestic changes went largely unnoticed and could begin to bud. "If there is a third term, people will look back on the second term in a few years and say, 'There was stuff going on under the surface there. They really did get welfare, health, education into a different place, and now we're seeing the fruits of it.' "
Still, even Blair advisers readily acknowledge that if his time in power ends with Thursday's election, he would leave an unfulfilled agenda. "What he's trying to do is change things in a fundamental way that will last," said a senior Blair adviser, who declined to be named in order to speak candidly. "He doesn't feel a second term did that. He does feel a third term will do that."