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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 11:01 GMT
Blair: From politician to wartime leader
Tony Blair and George W Bush
Tony Blair has become a close ally of George W Bush
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

A landslide victory at the general election of 2001 seemed to have cemented Tony Blair's place in the political history of Britain.

He was the man who reinvented the Labour Party and saw internal reforms translated into another electoral triumph, securing a second full term for his party.

But since the events of 11 September, the verdict of history will be determined as much by his performance on a global stage as his record at home.

As Washington's principal ally, Prime Minister Blair has travelled the world trying to stiffen the resolve of the coalition in the "war against terrorism".

It is only a few weeks since he was wrestling with the bread and butter issues of British politics, education, law and order, the state of the health service.

Tony Blair and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Mr Blair had a difficult visit to Syria
Today he is cast in the role of wartime leader.

Only last year Mr Blair was famously heckled during a speech to the Women's Institute.

Now he jets to meetings with prime ministers, presidents and princes, and is accorded the status of a world leader.

When he addressed the Labour Party conference, the newspapers heard echoes of Winston Churchill, the Conservative Prime Minister whose oratory inspired Britain during the dark days of the Second World War.

Finest hour

Some see the present crisis as Mr Blair's "finest hour".

But others, while acknowledging the power of his message, doubt whether the ambitions are realistic.

One political commentator talked of the Prime Minister's "neo-imperial mission to save the entire planet".

But even Mr Blair's critics acknowledge the way he seized the initiative immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mr Blair's words of sympathy and solidarity a time when America was in trauma renewed the "special relationship" between the old allies

While the rest of the world appeared paralysed with shock, Mr Blair instantly put domestic politics on hold to deliver a sombre condemnation of Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban.

The Prime Minister has never made any secret of his admiration for the United States.

Old allies

His words of sympathy and solidarity at a time when America was in trauma renewed the "special relationship" between the old allies.

But while Britain's stock in Washington has seldom been higher, Mr Blair's new role as international statesman takes him into politically dangerous territory.

It is one thing to win plaudits in America, quite another to convince sceptics in the Arab and Muslim world about the need to support the coalition, and the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Personal embarrassment

His bruising experience in Syria was clearly a personal embarrassment.

Some commentators blamed him for listening to his own circle of advisers rather than seasoned Foreign Office diplomats.

But amid the criticism, there has also been praise for his willingness to "get his hands dirty".

Back home, Mr Blair has had to confront "the wobblers", as public support for military action against the Taleban has appeared to soften, as concern has grown about the impact of the bombing on ordinary Afghans.

In his efforts to bolster support for the coalition, Mr Blair has spoken with passion and emotion.

There is little doubt about the sincerity of his words, and the way they reflect a very personal sense of morality.

High-risk mission

Without hesitation, the Prime Minister committed himself to a high-risk diplomatic mission as America's chief ally.

Mr Blair visits troops in Oman
Addressing British troops in Oman
Among those risks are the consequences of being distracted from pressing issues at home.

Britain's tabloid newspaper The Sun, once a supporter of the Tories but a convert to New Labour, warns Mr Blair of the dangers of neglecting domestic politics.

It cites the experience of Winston Churchill, who led Britain to victory in the Second World War, only to be voted out of office at the general election of 1945.

"Voters decided their hero was superb at beating the enemy abroad but a failure at solving problems at home," the paper says.

Losing focus

But while there is always the risk of "losing focus" on key domestic issues, there is no doubt that being a wartime leader can enhance the reputation of a prime minister facing problems at home.

Margaret Thatcher's handling of the Falklands' conflict helped her to win the 1983 election. And her emergence as a player on the world stage further established her image as the "Iron Lady".

But in the end, she was the victim of rifts within her own party, and was forced out of office.

Mr Blair's growing stature on the international scene comes at a time when some within his own ranks are uneasy at what they see as his increasingly presidential style of government.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Some critics say his style is too presidential

He is accused being a control freak, more interested in the opinions of a small group of un-elected policy advisers than listening to the views of back-bench MPs, or even ministers within his own Cabinet.

Andrew Mackinlay, one of Labour's mavericks on the back benches, points out that "President Blair" has greater powers than George W. Bush, who has to defer to Congress.

Dissent in Parliament

He concedes that his leader has "played a blinder" since September 11, but argues that legislators have a right to record their dissent in Parliament.

Some political commentators think that Mr Blair's strengths as a wartime leader reflect his weaknesses in times of peace

The limited opportunity for debate, and for voting, is a real concern for some Labour backbenchers, who worry that the Prime Minister is becoming isolated from ordinary MPs.

And some political commentators think that Mr Blair's strengths as a wartime leader reflect his weaknesses in times of peace.

Many qualities

"Mr Blair is a passionate man with many qualities," argues columnist 'Bagehot' in The Economist.

"Leading a global alliance of good against evil may strike him as a worthier challenge than running Britain, what with its tedious political conferences at seaside resorts, and its carping about trains.

"But that is still his job."

History will judge how well Tony Blair succeeds in juggling domestic politics with his new role of international statesman.

See also:

06 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Defeating terror 'vital for economy'
02 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Downing Street defends Blair trip
30 Oct 01 | UK Politics
We will not falter, says Blair
16 Oct 01 | Letter From America
Blair and Bush: The special relationship
01 Nov 01 | UK
Blair the 'quiet American'
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