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Britain balks at efforts to keep new Blair arrival hush-hush

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2000



LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie have vowed that the birth and upbringing of their fourth child Leo will remain a family matter.

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But the gossip-hungry British media continue to scavenge for details of Saturday's "happy event." And so the Blairs' hopes for privacy after the first birth of a baby at 10 Downing Street in 150 years seem bound for defeat.

Already, the pregnancy has fascinated the nation. Wide speculation focused on whether the prime minister would in fact take the parental leave his wife, a high-profile lawyer, had been fighting his government for.

Mrs. Blair had publicly hinted she'd like her husband to take the time off. But, although he'll go into "holiday mode" for a few days, he declined the leave, saying: "You don't ever stop being prime minister."

He has however "promised Cherie to do the middle-of-the-night nappies (diapers)."

With so much of their public life on display, the expectant parents went to great lengths to keep the birth as private as possible. Cherie was driven to the hospital in an unmarked minivan, and the prime minister's spokesman refused to confirm that a birth was imminent.

But their plea to be left alone has been widely criticized.

An editorial in London's Sunday Times questioned the Blairs' right to keep the world guessing about Leo and what his arrival might mean for the nation.

The birth of little Leo, the paper said, "has a public dimension," because the family's issues are part of British politics. Leo's parents, however, have other ideas.

Although the baby came into the world a few minutes after midnight on Saturday - giving the spokesman plenty of time to catch that morning's newspapers - an official announcement was delayed until 3 a.m., ensuring that the tabloid press missed the story completely. And some observers think that approach is a mistake.

Political analyst Andrew Rawnsley believes Mr. Blair will be foolish if he doesn't take full political advantage of the new arrival. Noting that Conservative opposition leader William Hague is married but childless, Rawnsley says the birth of Leo will "make a difference" and give Blair an edge in the political party battle.

With a general election likely next year, says Rawnsley, "Tony Blair, unlike Mr. Hague, will be able to convince voters that he empathizes with the fears of parents for their children's health and education."

But the prime minister's family isn't looking for political spin now. As hundreds of journalists waited outside the hospital Friday night, one reporter was heard saying: "We strained our ears for the sound of a baby crying," but only heard "the prime minister's spokesman weeping at being ordered to keep his mouth shut."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society