By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 16, 2006
LONDON -- Verra Budimlija was once a classic fan of Prime Minister Tony Blair -- she's 40, a well-educated advertising executive, the kind of voter who propelled Blair and the Labor Party to power in 1997.
Not only does she live in Islington, a Labor stronghold where people took to the streets to celebrate Blair's generation-shifting election, she lives in th very brick house that was Blair's at the time.
But now, nine years and two reelections later, Budimlija is suffering from "Tired of Tony," a malady afflicting even once-fanatical supporters as it spreads across Britain like a blanket of fog.
"He has been around too long," Budimlija said. "It seems to me that he has lost touch with the mood of the country, with what people think. He looks tired, worn out, like he has been in the job too long."
Blair fatigue has become the dominant narrative in British politics. The posturing of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Blair's presumed successor-in-waiting, and the look-at-me style of David Cameron, 39, the new Conservative Party leader, are endlessly debated. Scandals come and go; the Iraq war never leaves. Ministers find themselves embarrassed with regularity by their choices of spouse or lover.
But hanging over all of it, like Britain's great gray sky, is a single question:
Is he still here?
"I want to like him. I just can't anymore," said Hannah Lloyd, 35, a lawyer and mother of three, who said she was dazzled by Blair when he rode into office with Britain's biggest margin of victory in a century. Now, she said, sipping coffee in an Islington cafe, the televised face she once found exciting seems "rather smug."
When Blair was elected at the age of 43, the youngest prime minister since 1812, "He walked on water, it was like he could do no wrong," said Ben Page, director of the Ipsos MORI polling firm.
Now his approval ratings have fallen to just over 30 percent. Nearly half of people polled by the London newspaper the Times this month wanted Blair to resign now or by the end of the year. Fifty-seven percent agreed that "Blair had run out of steam and is unlikely to achieve anything else as prime minister."
But when will he go? Blair refuses to say. But he set off speculation even before his election to a third term last May, when he said he did not intend to seek a fourth term. That was widely interpreted as meaning he would step aside before his term ends; British law requires an election by 2010 at the latest. All the uncertainty has fueled debilitating speculation about exactly when he might go.
Ominously for Blair, much of the weariness with him is coming from places such as Islington, the north London neighborhood almost synonymous with Blair and his "New Labor" revolution. It's a mix of fancy Georgian homes from the 18th century and public housing projects.
A decade ago, the lawyers, tradesmen and teachers here were the engine driving Blair -- a youthful, charismatic and effortlessly articulate Oxford-educated lawyer -- and his fellow reformers past a Conservative Party that had become creaky and, many felt, corrupt after almost 20 years in power.
Now, in interviews along these same streets, many people repeatedly complain that Blair's time has passed.
"A lot of people don't trust him," said John Hulbert, 70, a taxi driver and Labor supporter who lives on Barnsbury Street with his wife, Jean, a retired teacher. "You couldn't walk into a pub and talk about Blair -- they would throw you out."
Analysts point out that time and familiarity are generally unkind to world leaders, no matter what their accomplishments. U.S. presidents historically see their popularity wane in their second terms, including President Bush, whose approval ratings are at all-time lows.
"I don't think I have heard of a leader who remained popular in his last two years in office," Hulbert said. "England got rid of [Winston] Churchill after World War II and he was the greatest thing since sliced bread."
Even many of Blair's critics acknowledge that the British economy has flourished during his years. "He rejuvenated the country and made it more entrepreneurial, creative," Budimlija said. Her three-story house, formerly Blair's, stands on Richmond Crescent, a small street where a Jaguar, a BMW and the vans of renovation contractors are parked in front of houses whose values have jumped to as high as $3 million in the Blair era.
The prime minister has been widely praised for his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and Kosovo, and his dedication to eradicating poverty in Africa. Blair has often led Britain by means of the remarkable force of his personality and his talent for articulating issues as few others can.
Ruston Chichgeo, 44, an architect on Richmond Crescent, said Blair has done well by Britain. "Things are going pretty much okay," he said. He doesn't want to see Blair go.
It is Blair's passionate -- some say disastrously stubborn -- leadership on Iraq that is the one issue that continues to weigh him down. There is a widespread perception that the prime minister exaggerated, or even fabricated, the dangers of weapons of mass destruction in taking the country to a war that has no end in sight.
"Iraq is a total disgrace," Budimlija said. "Sadly, it has cast a big black shadow over the closing days of his being prime minister."
Blair has vigorously defended Britain's troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as a noble struggle to sow democracy. In a speech in Australia three weeks ago, he said: "I know the Iraq war split this nation as it did mine. And I have never disrespected those who disagreed with me over it."
His cozy relationship with Bush, who is extremely unpopular here, is seen by many as detrimental to British interests. Perhaps as a nod to that, Blair recently said: "I do not always agree with the U.S. Sometimes they can be difficult friends to have."
In Islington, some people accuse Blair of abandoning his working class base, saying he did not fix up public schools as promised. They say he and his wife, Cherie, a lawyer, have become too interested in creating a wealthy lifestyle for themselves once Blair leaves office.
The Blairs' purchase in 2004 of a $6 million home in Connaught Square, using a huge mortgage, raised many eyebrows among working-class Britons. Cherie Blair's frequent speaking engagements around the world, which often fetch thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, have also drawn sharp criticism.
"People don't like politicians who come out of politics millionaires," Hulbert said.
Many also voice a growing claim that the candidate who promised to be "purer than pure" has opened the door to sleaze -- most recently over a scandal involving political donors.
On Thursday, police arrested Des Smith, a former government adviser who said he recruited wealthy sponsors for a cornerstone Blair initiative, a chain of public schools granted special independence. Smith had suggested to an undercover newspaper reporter that major donors to these academies could be recommended for government honors, including seats in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.
Scotland Yard is investigating whether Labor -- as well as the opposition Conservatives -- have been peddling appointed seats in the legislature for money. Blair's office declined to comment on the arrest but has denied any wrongdoing in what's become known as the cash-for-honors scandal.
"The Conservatives were the ones with the sleazy reputation, but now, sadly, it's Labor, too," said Louise Tilghman, a mother of three pushing a baby carriage near Barnard Park in Islington. "Blair's ministers and friends have been involved in scandals. His wife runs around the world giving speeches trading on her position. And now this. It's sickening."
Still, in Islington, even some of those feeling Tired of Tony wonder whether he should go.
"I am not sure he should stand down," Hulbert said, "because there is nobody else out there."