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Blair's end game: fresh mandate, or lame duck?

PM stunned British public last week by announcing he would retire at the end of an expected third term.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2004



LONDON

Winston Churchill was forced out - twice. Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own party. John Major was removed by the electorate.

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Tony Blair has other plans.

The prime minister's unprecedented announcement that he will leave office on his own terms has short-circuited ruminations on the embattled Mr. Blair's future and the possible look of a post-Blair Britain. Blair says he intends to fight in the next election expected next May and, if successful, serve a third full term before yielding to a successor, probably around 2009.

Supporters say the plan could free his hands to complete the "Blairite" project of modernizing Britain. But skeptics worry the nimble leader - already dogged by the unpopular war in Iraq and charges that he has neglected domestic reforms - will be reduced to a lame duck as squabbling acolytes maneuver to succeed him.

Tim Allan, who served for four years as Blair's deputy press secretary, says the move neatly demonstrates a deft touch for proactive strategy. "The decision bears all the hallmarks of a Blair strategic decision," says Mr. Allan. "He's very good at working out where he should be positioned in any big argument or debate."

The political debate this year has centered on Blair's future. His popularity has ebbed because of the Iraq war, which met heavy public protest from the start. A heart operation, though conducted successfully on Friday, has triggered questions about his political longevity. Putative successors have long been jostling for position, not least his right-hand man, Gordon Brown.

But Blair's chief strengths through seven years in office have been decisiveness, excellent communication, and political dexterity. Blair has, moreover, a keen sense of history, and knows that British prime ministers do not last forever. "I think it's sensible now to say to people 'frankly, I wouldn't go on and on and on,'" he said, alluding to Margaret Thatcher's fateful boast to "go on and on."

Allan says that the decision could breathe new life into Blair's agenda. The Iraq war has unquestionably deflected attention from the chief mission for which he was first elected in 1997: to modernize public services, schools, hospitals, and transport systems neglected throughout a generation of underinvestment.

"One argument is that your power starts slipping as soon as you say you're going, but it also gives you the freedom of a 'second term presidency' - you're no longer thinking of the short-term tactical thing of how do I keep my job," he says.

But others say setting a limit to his term presents the kind of problems that American presidents face late in their second term, when time is running out. Unlike American leaders, British prime ministers face no term limits. They stay in the job until they are voted out by party or country, or until they quit.

"The [US] phenomenon ... of the lame duck president in [the] last two years of his term doesn't exist here, but this has introduced it," says Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at Essex University.

John Rentoul, political commentator and author of the biography "Tony Blair: Prime Minister," says the danger is that, "Once you set a date for your departure in the British system, then power begins to drain away from you."

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