After 10 Years, Blair Bowing Out

Prime Minister Tony Blair, with wife Cherie, greets backers in Sedgefield after announcing he will step down June 27.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, with wife Cherie, greets backers in Sedgefield after announcing he will step down June 27. (By Suzanne Plunkett -- Bloomberg News)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 11, 2007

LONDON, May 10 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Britain's most influential and long-serving leaders in a century, announced Thursday that he will step down on June 27, leaving a legacy of economic and political achievement mixed with deep public anger over his partnership with President Bush in the Iraq war.

"I have been prime minister of this country for just over 10 years," Blair told cheering supporters in his home constituency of Sedgefield, speaking in the modest Trimdon Labor Club building where he launched his political career almost 24 years ago to the day. "In this job, in the world today, I think that is long enough for me, but more especially for the country. Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down."

Blair's long-anticipated announcement clears the way for his political partner and rival Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, to replace Blair as prime minister. Brown has support that should allow him to easily win the party leadership in coming weeks, then assume the job he has coveted for a decade.

In an emotional speech, Blair expressed pride in his efforts to shore up Britain's economy and health-care systems, reduce crime and unemployment, and guide the country from the post-Cold War doldrums into the 21st century. He also defended his alliance with the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying he still believed it was right to "stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally," particularly in the "bitterly controversial" Iraq war.

"For many it simply isn't and can't be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through," Blair said. "They, the terrorists who threaten us here and around the world, will never give up if we give up. It is a test of will and of belief and we can't fail it." He added: "Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. . . . I may have been wrong. That's your call. But believe one thing, if nothing else: I did what I thought was right for our country."

He concluded his subdued remarks by offering "apologies for the times I have fallen short" and wishing his supporters "good luck."

Blair's departure will mark the end of an era that brought Britain new optimism and opportunity but also anger, fear and war. After taking office in May 1997 with a promise of "a new dawn," Blair outlasted every other European leader in power at the time, and established himself as one of the world's most visible and senior statesmen, even though he will leave office at just 54.

Later Thursday, Brown told reporters that he had praised Blair in the morning during a brief cabinet meeting at which the prime minister disclosed his intentions. "I think I spoke for millions when I said at cabinet today that Tony Blair's achievements are unique, unprecedented and enduring," Brown said. "Britain's reputation in the world is stronger than ever before. At all times he tried to do the right thing."

Media reports here said that in coming weeks, Blair has planned a final global lap that will take him away from disillusioned Britain and into Europe, Africa and America, where his star is far less dimmed. U.S. officials said Blair would travel to Washington next week to make a final call on Bush, a man inextricably tied to Blair's legacy.

In his speech today, Blair said the most difficult decisions he made involved Iraq. "Putting the country first does not mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the prevailing consensus, or the latest snapshot of opinion; it means doing what you genuinely believe to be right," Blair said, adding, "Sometimes, you are alone with your instincts."

While speaking with reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Bush praised Blair as "a long-term thinker" and "a man who's kept his word. . . . When Tony Blair tells you something, as we say in Texas, you can take it to the bank. . . . So I'm going to miss him. He's a remarkable person and I consider him a good friend." As for Brown, Bush said that in a meeting he had found him to be "an open and engaging person . . . an easy-to-talk-to, good thinker." Bush said he believes Brown "understands the consequence of failure" in Iraq.

Blair was under no legal obligation to leave office; he won reelection in 2005 and could have served until the next national election, which must be held no later than 2010. But with public resentment growing, he announced in 2004 that he would not run for a fourth term, and said last September that he would leave within a year.

Blair has been silent on his plans after stepping down. There has been much speculation that he will follow the lead of Bill Clinton, who was also 54 when he left office, and start a foundation to work on issues, perhaps including Middle East peace.

Even in Sedgefield, the cradle of Blair's political career, Britain's ambivalence about the prime minister was evident on Thursday. While he hugged an elderly woman holding a sign that said, "I'm a Blair Babe," protesters held up a large sign that said, "Sedgefield Against the War."

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