Blair emerges stronger from tumultuous week
By Mike Peacock
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Tony Blair has emerged
stronger after a week in which he has experienced the sweetest
highs and darkest lows, politicians and insiders say.
The prime minister punched the air after helping London win
the 2012 Olympics but a day later the capital’s transport
network was struck by four bombs, killing more than 50.
Somber but unbowed, he secured from fellow Group of Eight
leaders a doubling of aid to Africa and promises of freer trade
in the future, announcing it to applause from his counterparts.
Some critics felt short-changed but it was still a deal,
the scale of which most summits have got nowhere near.
Blair said it offered a positive counterpoint to the
terrorists who bombed three underground trains and a bus.
“We offer today this contrast with the politics of terror,”
he told reporters from the steps of the Gleneagles hotel.
While rock star and Africa activist Bob Geldof praised
Blair’s efforts, political insiders said the attacks on London
also dealt the prime minister a strong, if unwelcome, hand.
His opponents will have to rally round in a show of unity.
Controversial measures like ID cards, which ministers argue
will help combat terrorism, will probably sail into law without
any revolt by doubtful members of his Labour party.
And crucially, Labour members who want finance minister
Gordon Brown to inherit the premiership will have to lie low.
“Gordon will find it very difficult to challenge Tony any
time soon, even privately,” one Labour parliamentarian said.
Just two months ago, after winning his third election with
a vastly reduced majority, politicians of all colors were
talking about how long “lame duck” Blair would last.
Brown was the pivotal figure in Labour’s election campaign
as it became clear only his economic record would overcome
public dislike stemming from the unpopular war in Iraq.
His allies expected him to be in power by late 2006, partly
because Blair had promised to hold a referendum on the European
Union’s constitution which polls suggested he could not win.
That vote has been killed off by the EU constitution’s
rejection at the hands of French and Dutch voters.
Now, Blair’s pledge to serve a full third term — handing
over the reins only shortly before a likely 2009 election –
rings much less hollow.
Opinion polls during the election showed Blair may have
been distrusted and even disliked but when asked the question
who they would wish as leader at a time of national crisis, he
was overwhelmingly the man Britons wanted.
He remains a leader highly attuned to the tone his public
needs to hear as well as standing tall on the world stage.
Blair’s personal intervention in the Olympics race, flying
to Singapore to woo key voters behind the scenes, was a case in
point. Paris had been firm favorite to win and President
Jacques Chirac also jetted in, but to no avail.
After Blair left the G8 summit to fly back to London,
Chirac — who has been bitterly at odds with Blair in recent
months — recognized his ability to strike the right chord.
“He did what had to be done, as it had to be done, at the
moment it had to be done,” he said.
While setting a time limit on his premiership risked
leaving him hobbled as a leader, freed from the cares of
winning another election, Blair may be emboldened.
Alongside Africa, Europe offers opportunities.
With Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and Chirac in trouble, the
debate about the bloc’s future could be grabbed by Blair, who
acts as EU president for the next six months.
“He genuinely thinks the argument on Europe is there to be
won,” one aide said.
Some buoyant Blair supporters have even suggested he may
yet decide to fight a fourth election. That is not likely.
“Nothing has changed,” Blair said of his plan to stand