Tony Blair may be enjoying a second political life in France, where the two victors in last Sunday’s election, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, emulate his style and even some of the policies that once made Britain’s New Labour such an electoral success. But across the Channel, the British prime minister is entering the final days of a remarkable, and ultimately tragic, political career.
When Blair came to power in 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative Party rule, it would have been hard to imagine a dénouement so mired in bad news. The fallout from the war in Iraq continues to eat away at Blair’s political support. The war is hardly Blair’s only problem, but the toll it has taken will be glaringly obvious on May 3, when his Labour Party is expected to fare poorly in elections for local councils, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party, which advocates independence from Britain, is holding onto a 5 to 7 percent lead over Labour, according to the latest polls. The fact that Blair, generally acknowledged to be an electoral liability across the country, has announced he’s stepping down hasn’t given Labour the boost the party was hoping for. Nor has the fact that Blair’s all but certain successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, is Scottish born, the son of a Church of Scotland minister and, as a Labour M.P. sitting in London, has represented a Scottish constituency since 1983.
For Blair personally, it could still get worse. A nasty political scandal—the cash-for-peerages affair in which donors allegedly gave big loans to the Labour Party in exchange for seats in the House of Lords—refuses to go away. Last week the police packed up the evidence they’ve been gathering for a year and turned it over to the Crown Prosecution Service. In coming weeks, the CPS will decide whether or not charges should be brought against two key figures in Blair’s political entourage: Lord Levy of Mill Hill, Blair’s chief personal fund-raiser and his special envoy to the Middle East, and Ruth Turner, his director of government relations. (Both have denied allegations of wrongdoing.)
Hardly anybody expects Blair himself to be charged. But the scandal is an acute embarrassment for a leader who early on in his years at 10 Downing Street, when confronted with another fund-raising imbroglio, told a radio interviewer, “I'm a pretty straight sorta guy.” Back then, the public had little trouble believing their new prime minister. Now, in no small part because of the flawed WMD arguments that Blair used to take his country to war, Britons have lost trust in him.
As clouds thicken over 10 Downing Street, the precise timing of Blair’s exit is becoming clearer. On May 8, five days after the elections in Scotland and elsewhere, the new cross-party government in Northern Ireland will take power, symbolizing one of Blair’s crowning achievements as prime minister. Events could upset the schedule, but it looks like Blair will announce his resignation the next day, on May 9. The election for the party leadership is expected to take about seven weeks, whether Brown is challenged or not. That points to June 30 as the earliest date of a Blair-Brown handover.
Along the way, on May 6, Blair will celebrate his 54th birthday. It promises to be a bittersweet occasion.