For the past couple of years it was Northern Ireland that kept British Prime Minister Tony Blair awake at night. Soon there will be a new distraction.
Mr. Blair's surprise announcement over the weekend that he and his wife, Cherie, are expecting another child - their fourth - next May has been greeted with delight by the British press.
But political analysts foresee complications ahead. Michael White, political editor of the Guardian newspaper, says the year ahead will be "a turbulent time." The Blair's official London residence, 10 Downing Street, is "really just a small place," Mr. White notes. "The idea of accommodating a newborn baby, with all that that entails, in the upstairs living quarters, strains the imagination."
Blair, who said he was "utterly shocked and surprised, but also delighted," foresees challenges ahead, too. The day after the announcement, he told reporters: "I just can't believe that I'm going to be changing nappies [diapers] again."
Four a.m. feedings are certain to impact his wife's busy professional life as well. Mrs. Blair is a sought-after and highly paid legal advocate.
Staff at Downing Street are having to do some quick forward planning. The last British prime minister known to father a child while in office was Lord John Russell, whose son, George, was born in 1848. A source inside the Blair residence said, "This is all uncharted territory for us. I suppose we'll have to erect some kind of safety fence at the top of the staircase." There will also be parking problems at No. 10 - inside the house, that is, not out on the street. Household staff members are quoted in the tabloid press as saying they're going to have to find room for a baby carriage in the cramped hallway at the foot of the stairs.
Privacy is also bound to be a concern. In the 2-1/2 years the Blairs have inhabited Downing Street, the British media have allowed their three children (teenage sons Euan and Nicholas and daughter Kathryn, 11) to enjoy a low media profile, even though they attend school in central London. With the arrival of a new child, however, intense media interest is inevitable, and it remains to be seen how the prime minister and his wife will handle the problem.
Still, political biographer Anthony Howard, sees "a distinct upside" to the Blairs' late arrival. "Tony is already known to be an enthusiastic family man and a hands-on father, and his wife is obviously a devoted mother," he says. "For the public to see a baby carriage coming and going from No. 10 will be a huge political bonus, especially with a general election looming a year or so from now."
The latest opinion polls show Blair's popularity, which had been dipping, up 5 to 10 points.
While there is widespread belief that the arrival of a baby can only be political good news for Blair, Howard forecasts that it may in the end shorten his tenure as prime minister. "Until now, everyone, myself included, has assumed that Blair wanted at least two full terms in office. But the baby may change all that," Howard says. "If he wins the next general election, I can imagine him wondering halfway through his second term whether it mightn't be a good idea to step aside for someone else - perhaps [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Gordon Brown."
Blair may have betrayed that line of thinking when he commented: "This child is going to be at school when I'm a pensioner."
Benazir Bhutto may be able to offer some helpful advice. The former prime minister of Pakistan, now living in exile in Britain, raised two young children while in office.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society