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A Decade's Rule Marked by War and Peace
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Gordon Brown's 13-year itch to lord it over 10 Downing Street seems to be over. The British Chancellor of Exchequer still has a seven-week wait, though, because Tony Blair will hand over his resignation and seals of office to Queen Elizabeth only on June 27. Brown failed to challenge John Smith for the Labor Party leadership in 1992. But more importantly (and famously), he didn't challenge Blair either when Smith suddenly died in 1994 "because he had struck a deal with him not to run against one another".

A year later Blair was sworn in as Britain's youngest prime minister in nearly 200 years, a telegenic communicator from the modernist right wing of the Labor Party. But the 54-year-old prime minister's popularity was damaged by Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq.

Blair's decade in power will be remembered for his media-savvy transformation of British politics. But above all, it will be known for the Iraq war. Blair, a guitarist who famously fronted a student rock band called Ugly Rumors at Oxford University, has become one of the world's most controversial leaders for backing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Britain's involvement is still a divisive issue, and his party has slumped in the polls.

Blair has admitted that resigning as prime minister could help reverse his party's and his successor's fortunes. "But I also believe... that the essential new Labor position, which is to get over some of the old divisions of left and right in politics... will hold," he said before the May 2 anniversary of his 1997 landslide election victory. The longest-serving Labor prime minister and the only one to have led the party to three consecutive election victories will also be remembered for helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

And he deserves credit for keeping Britain's economy more than alive and kicking despite all the odds.

Blair was born in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh on May 6, 1953, and spent most of his childhood in the northern English city of Durham. He studied law at Oxford University to become a barrister, and joined the Labor Party when he was in his 20s. He was elected to parliament from the northern English town of Sedgefield in 1983 when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were pushing British politics to the right. He rose rapidly through the Labor ranks as the party sought to bounce back from a series of disastrous election defeats and bitter internecine conflict.

In his initial years as prime minister, he was the darling of the people and the media. His ability to connect with the electorate and work his media magic was sealed in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana, when he called her "the people's princess".

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Blair declared that he stood "shoulder to shoulder" with the US, and hitched his future to its new president, George W. Bush. The leaders formed a bond and at one meeting announced they even shared the same brand of toothpaste. But the closer he got to Bush, the lower his popularity ratings fell. And the pressure to resign mounted on him with each passing day.

Still on the election campaign two years ago, Brown was even reported to have asked him when he would step down. Blair is supposed to have bought an ice cream to cool him down.
Brown got what he had been "waiting for all these years". He is reported to have already garnered pledges from 271 of the 355 Labor MPs, with the figure increasing by the hour. The decision by Home Secretary John Reid to leave the government without throwing his hat in the ring has bolstered Brown's support.

But the Brown camp still fears that a couple of other MPs could scrape the 44 votes they need to get onto the ballot paper, if, as expected, one of them stands aside to maximize support for a single left-wing candidate. About 84 Labor MPs are thought to be "undecided" about who they would back, although a number of them are committed "Blairites" who will have no intention of voting for either of them.

Brown will try to shake off his "control freakery" image and has already signaled his belief that parliament should have a say on big decisions such as going to war. He will also call for more powers to be devolved away from Whitehall and greater consultation, with the executive being held to account not just by parliament but also by the country. Examples of decentralization could include setting up an independent board for national healthcare that would give it constitutional freedom and continuity of policy.

He hopes to avoid a summer of discontent by doing the rounds of spring union conferences. Unions want to see some rolling back on privatization and public-private partnerships, which they say are fragmenting the nation's public services.

On foreign policy, the chancellor is anxious to draw a line under the Iraq conflict - perhaps the biggest cause of the government's unpopularity - and has pledged to reduce troop numbers when possible.

He is also expected to try to shed the UK's image as George Bush's poodle by forging a different relationship with the US. But he is unlikely to radically change the security policy. He supported government plans - defeated in parliament - to detain terrorism suspects for more than 28 days without charge.

On Europe, Brown is expected to join France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel to advocate structural reforms in the EU.

Blair's resignation has triggered a meeting of the Labor Party's national executive committee, which will meet on Sunday to finalize the timetable and arrangements for the nominations for the leadership and deputy leadership contests and appoint an election committee to oversee the process.

Brown, meanwhile, will steam ahead with his campaign tomorrow, by unveiling his policy agenda as prospective party leader on a theme of "continuity and change".

(China Daily via agencies May 11, 2007)

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