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The End Of Blair-Bush Partnership Looming Fast

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with U.S. President George W. Bush. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Hannah K. Strange
UPI U.K. Correspondent
London (UPI) Jun 28, 2006
"I want him to be here as long as I'm the president," said U.S. President George W. Bush in May when asked about the future of his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It seems increasingly likely, however, that Bush will not get his way.

As speculation mounts over Blair's likely departure date, signs are emerging that he intends to finally relinquish the reins within a year.

The British leader is reportedly seeking to negotiate a handover deal with his expected successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, before Labor's annual conference this fall, in order to prevent speculation over his leadership from overwhelming the party.

Downing Street sources quoted in the Guardian newspaper Wednesday suggested Blair had decided it was necessary to forge an understanding with Brown by September. However those closest to the prime minister had not yet agreed on whether it was necessary to publicly name a departure date, or whether a private accord would be sufficient, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, senior Blairite members of Parliament said high-level talks were taking place aimed at a transition to a Brown premiership in spring 2007. Blair was preparing to announce his departure date -- probably around the 10th anniversary of his leadership in May -- at or before the fall conference, they told the Telegraph newspaper.

The reports follow a stinging attack on Blair's leadership by former ally Charles Clarke, who was fired as home secretary in May. Clarke, once a key outrider of the Blair camp, cast doubt on the prime minister's ability to continue in the role for much longer, accusing him of having lost his authority.

"I do think there is a sense of Tony having lost his sense of purpose and direction, so my advice to him is to recover that sense of purpose and direction and that remains the best option," he told the Times of London.

He had previously thought Blair should continue in the post until late 2008, Clarke later told BBC Radio. He still hoped the prime minister could recover the leadership and authority necessary to do so, he said.

But, he continued: "Whether he is able to do that -- because he has been damaged by recent events -- whether he wants to do that, is not a matter for me, really.

"I simply observe there are a lot of doubts about it and I share some of those, that's true."

Clarke's comments were seized upon by the opposition as evidence that the hemorrhaging at the heart of government was nearing fatal levels.

Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Blair's authority was "simply draining away." It was no longer "in the interests of the country" for him to continue, he suggested.

Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, meanwhile, likened the onslaught to Sir Geoffrey Howe's attack on then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The excoriation of Thatcher's leadership in the then deputy prime minister's resignation speech is widely thought to have hastened her downfall three weeks later.

But Blair dismissed the comparison Tuesday, telling reporters at a Downing Street reception that there would always be those critical of the government's direction.

And writing in the Guardian, he acknowledged that there was "genuine disappointment" in the government, particularly due to the problems of recent months, but insisted Labor had the right agenda.

The latest opinion polls show Labor languishing behind a resurgent Conservative Party which has opened up a substantial lead. A MORI poll published earlier this month found that 41 percent of voters would support the Conservatives in a general election tomorrow, with the Labor Party garnering just 34 percent.

The same poll found that 23 percent of Labor's own supporters believed that the party needed a period out of office to re-examine its direction.

While much of the current pressure on Blair results from a succession of damaging events in recent months -- corruption allegations, a financial crisis in the health service and the accidental release of over 1000 foreign prisoners, to name but a few -- in truth much of the speculation over his departure is of his own making.

The British leader announced almost two years ago that he would step down sometime before the next general election, likely in 2009, and has been bombarded with almost constant conjecture ever since. He recently admitted the move was a mistake, but has resisted setting a specific date for fear it would further undermine his position.

A former Labor minister who did not wish to be named told United Press International that naming a departure date would indeed be a fatal error. "The moment you name a date you are completely dead, you might as well resign," he said.

He argued that Blair should stay on for a longer period of time in order to absorb the current problems besieging the government. If Brown took over in the immediate future he would be inheriting an array of difficulties including the conflict in Iraq, the burgeoning nuclear stand-off with Iran, and at home, a Labor party in disarray, he said.

The former minister suggested the Guardian and Telegraph claims were purely speculative and were in fact a result of briefings by Brown and Blair supporters, whose rivalry is the stuff of Westminster legend. He acknowledged that people needed clarity, but said the chancellor should decide if he wanted to inherit a party "falling apart" and if not, back the prime minister and rein his supporters in.

Neither was the party helped by the public sniping of former ministers such as Clarke who were clearly motivated by anger at having been removed from office, he told UPI.

Former Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane agreed, telling UPI: "If Labor MPs and ministers, whether in or out of office, don't stop talking about it themselves, then people will start voting for another party."

Source: United Press International

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