Blair Says He Will Step Down Within 12 Months

Battered by sinking approval ratings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would not be party leader by this time 2007.
Battered by sinking approval ratings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would not be party leader by this time 2007. (By Peter Macdiarmid -- Getty Images)
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 8, 2006

LONDON, Sept. 7 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has led Britain for nearly a decade through economic prosperity and the pain of war, announced Thursday that he would resign within 12 months.

Battered by diving public approval ratings and an increasingly acrimonious feud with his presumed successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, Blair appeared stunned at the fevered demands in recent days that he make clear when he would step down. On Wednesday, eight junior members of his administration quit, the latest members of his party to say publicly that Blair has become a liability for them at the polls.

"The first thing I'd like to do is to apologize, actually," Blair said during a visit to a London school, adding that the Labor Party's public spat in the past week "has not been our finest hour."

"What is important now is that we understand that it's the interests of the country that come first and we move on," he said. Then, addressing what he called "my timing and date of departure," he said he would not be Labor's leader when it held its 2007 annual conference. That means he will leave at some point before this time next year.

"I think the precise timetable should be left up to me," he said. With an uncharacteristically weary look for a man famous for his ear-to-ear smile, Blair added, "I would have preferred to do this in my own way."

It was a muffled, small beginning to the final chapter of a historic premiership. Since his party's landslide election in 1997, Blair, 53, has outlasted every other major European leader in office and become one of the world's most recognized statesmen.

It was unclear if Blair's announcement would satisfy his critics.

"Some of Gordon Brown's supporters no doubt hold the view that since Blair has said he is going, the best thing is to get it over and done with," Karen Buck, a Labor member of Parliament who is close to Blair, said in an interview.

"He has been without doubt the most successful leader Labor has ever had in terms of winning elections," she said, citing gains in the economy, health services and education. But Blair's support of the Iraq war and his reluctance to call for an immediate cease-fire during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, which many people here saw as another siding with Washington, "have been a major factor in undermining party support for him," she said.

While most West European leaders opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Blair argued passionately that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was an imminent threat. When those claims were discredited, Blair's popularity here suffered severely. In a YouGov poll in July, only 27 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Blair's job performance.

Despite the political cost, Blair has remained an unwavering spokesman for the Iraq war and has committed thousands of British troops to Afghanistan as well. "The Iraqi and Afghan fight for democracy is our fight," he told an audience in Los Angeles last month. "Same values. Same enemy. Victory for them is victory for us all."

The next general election must be held by 2010 at the latest. When Blair steps aside, Labor members will vote for a new leader. If Brown is selected, as is expected, he will automatically become prime minister as the head of the largest party in Parliament. Although he has effectively been the second-ranking official in the country for more than nine years, Brown's supporters want him to have enough time to prove his command of the top job before facing David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, in the general election.

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