No sooner had Tony Blair secured a historic third term for his Labour Party than the focus abruptly switched to who comes next. And when.
Blair has said he'll step down in the next four years, prompting a raucous media countdown and calls from some in his party for an early exit. But the British prime minister is pushing back hard, outlining a lofty agenda that he still wants to complete. "Our task now is to deepen the change, accelerate reform, and address head-on the priorities of the British people," he told reporters Thursday.
Analysts say there may still be time for Mr. Blair to tackle three issues close to his heart: the introduction of ID cards, a clampdown on antisocial behavior, and reform of a pension system every bit as precarious as that in America and mainland Europe. All three efforts will probably irritate Labour's liberal backbenchers, who have charged that the "Blair effect" decimated the party's majority in Parliament.
"There is controversial legislation that may be harder to get through," given his small majority, says Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University.
Professor Grant says Blair is in no hurry to pass on the baton - probably to economy chief Gordon Brown - just yet. "A new leader will have to be given sufficient time to put his stamp on the government before the next election," he says. "But Blair doesn't want to go quickly because he still has an agenda to fulfill."
But before he can, another event looms that could define the Blair third term - and even pinpoint the sell-by date of his premiership. France votes later this month on adopting the controversial new European Union (EU) Constitution. The result could have serious political ramifications in Britain.
If the French adopt the Constitution, all eyes will turn to Britain, where Blair has promised the public its own vote on the charter in 2006. He supports the text, but opinion polls show he will have an extremely difficult time selling it to the public. A "No" vote could prove terminal.
The May 29 French vote "is critical from our point of view," says Member of Parliament (MP) Bob Marshall-Andrews, who won reelection by just 213 votes out of 40,000 in Medway, southeast England. "If France adopts it then there will be a very difficult vote in the UK." If the French reject it, however, the issue may have to go back to Square 1 in Brussels. "If France does not back it, I suspect there won't be a vote here at all," he adds.
"The French vote is absolutely key," says Ian Gibson, a Labour MP who was comfortably reelected.
There are two principal reasons why the clock is ticking on Blair's premiership. First, Blair has already ruled out another term after this one, acknowledging that he didn't want to outstay his welcome. Britons like to take their heroes - political, cultural, and sporting - in short, sharp bursts. Prime ministers are no exception.
Second, some in Blair's party see him as a liability, particularly because of his Iraq war gambit. Blair may have been the chief asset in landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, but this time around his majority was slashed by almost 100 seats.
Almost 50 Labour MPs lost their jobs. One immediately defected to the opposition Conservatives, blaming Blair's leadership. Several of those narrowly reelected quickly raised calls for an immediate succession to a new leader who would be able to make a fresh start.
"There were a number of people, myself included, who expressed the view that the prime minister should go sooner rather than later," says Mr. Marshall-Andrews.
But he added that the majority of Labour MPs fell in behind Blair after a rough-and-tumble meeting Wednesday and that there would now be "unity behind the leader."
"A lot of people in the party are jittery because it's not known what the terms of succession are going to be, if it will allow plenty of time for development of party policy before Tony Blair steps down," adds Dr. Gibson.
For now, Blair is striking a back-to- normal stance in the hope that he can use what time he has left to push through unfinished business. His program will be outlined next Tuesday in the parliamentary set-piece known as the Queen's Speech. "I think the party, and in a sense the country, just wants us to get on with the business now," Blair said Thursday.