[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Washington diary: Blair's ending
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Tornadoes in Sheffield, the monsoon in Manchester, biblical floods washing over Merry England.

Tony Blair with George W Bush, on his last visit to Washington as British PM
Tony Blair has many admirers on George W Bush's side of the Atlantic

Who would have thought that the end of Tony Blair would feel like the end of days?

As it happens, the deep depression swirling over middle England has absolutely nothing to do with the ebb and flow of power.

The English remain an unsentimental lot when it comes to prime ministers.

Those not too busy siphoning water out of their basements may dwell briefly on the dour Scot who used to run our money but will now run our whole country.

The nation whose lower lip once quivered for the passing of Diana, the People's Princess, will be as sentimental about the end of Tony and the beginning of Gordon as the movers lugging furniture in and out of Number 10.

It is here in America that Tony Blair will be missed.

Brother Tony

The ThankYouTony.com website has been virtually drowning in tears. Our neighbours, staunch Democrats who hate George W Bush, silently shake their heads when they contemplate the early retirement of Tony Blair. "Why, Matt, he's so articulate?"

Footballer David Beckham
Former England hero Beckham will also get a warm welcome in the US

The enthusiastic car insurance broker who gave me a 5% discount thanks to Tony Blair's steadfast support of George Bush -"if it weren't for you Brits, we'd be completely alone!" - is still deeply perplexed by it all.

America simply cannot get its head around the fratricide of Brother Tony in his own country.

It reminds me a little of the way that Germany could never fathom the revulsion felt by ordinary Russians for Mikhail Gorbachev, the hero who helped to unite Germany by dismantling his own empire.

But rest assured, Mr Blair, America will make up for it.

George Bush has already offered you a job as the Quartet's Middle East envoy. You will be mobbed like a rock star on the lecture circuit and the book tour.

In adulation you will be rivalled only by that other British superhero who was ejected from the nest and is soon to reside with his foster family, LA Galaxy, on the Pacific coast. David Beckham will bend balls and Tony Blair spin words for the delectation of a country that appreciates their talents.

Seeds of downfall

What I point out to my neighbours is that the British have always been nasty to their chief executives.

Winston Churchill (file picture, from 1942)
Voters dumped Winston Churchill after victory in World War II

Winston Churchill, hailed at home and abroad as one of the greatest statesmen ever, was felled at the polls within months of British tanks rolling victoriously into continental Europe.

Margaret Thatcher, the unflinching Iron Lady, was melted down and reduced to tears by rebellion in her own ranks.

By comparison, Tony Blair's departure has been graceful and bloodless.

In each case, his or her success also harboured the seeds of downfall.

By winning the war against Hitler, Winston Churchill mobilised a nation but also raised expectations of social mobility.

Once the war was won, the nation outgrew a leader who hailed from a different class and a different era.

After years of dithering and brittle parliamentary pacts, Lady Thatcher ruled with an iron fist and a solid majority in the House of Commons. Without anyone snapping at her heels she was allowed to overreach with policies like the unpopular poll tax.

She ended up aggravating her own Tory MPs, who feared oblivion at the next poll and thus pulled the plug on her. A British prime minister is after all elected by the winning party, not the electorate.

American infatuation

Tony Blair's success was that he managed to liberate the Labour Party from its traditional trenches and appeal directly to the nation at large. He stole policies and voters wherever he could find them. He managed to win three elections, a historic hat-trick for Labour.

Anti-Iraq war protesters outside 10 Downing Street
Tony Blair's decision to back the US in Iraq cost him dearly at home

He charmed the globe into believing that Britain mattered and then put the troops where his mouth is. He was inspired by Bill Clinton's charisma and partially groomed by his advisers.

Tony Blair was perhaps the most presidential prime minister we have ever had, ruling with a small coterie of advisers, growling at his troublesome party while smiling at the nation.

At first it worked a treat. We were Cool Britannia. Tony fixed Northern Ireland. What would be next? The Middle East perhaps. African poverty. Global warming.

And all the while Tony Blair spoke not about the minutiae of policies and quotas but reached for the stars with speeches about values and faith. He began to sound less and less like the man in Number 10 and more like the guy in the White House.

The combination of presidential charisma with a parliamentary majority was at its most successful when he persuaded his party against their better judgement to go along with the war of choice in Iraq.

The infatuation with America, emboldened by the belief that Britain must stand solidly behind its strongest ally, became Tony's fatal attraction. The hour of success began the countdown to failure.

Tony's hubris?

America's founding fathers made sure that the president had many of the trappings of monarchy but none of its power.

Modern British prime ministers are brilliant but lonely, and they benefit from none of the inherent respect which Americans harbour for the presidency

As George Bush is discovering now, the business of government is grinding trench warfare between the White House and Capitol Hill.

It is meant to be unpleasant and tedious. The checks and balances built into the system are like speed bumps, road blocks, pot holes and traffic cameras on British roads. They are meant to slow things down.

The president is only allowed to serve two terms in office. He spends most of his first term trying to get re-elected and most of his second being described as a lame duck. No wonder they give him the shiny plane and the armoured limos. There have to be some perks to this job.

By comparison, a British prime minister with a solid majority in parliament wields far more power.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair address Labour Party members in Manchester, 24 June 2007
Once Gordon Brown takes over as PM, Tony will revert to being Mr Blair

The day that George Bush was fighting for re-election in the first presidential debate against Senator John Kerry, Tony Blair graciously conceded that he wouldn't be seeking a fourth term of office. "But he hasn't even won his third yet!" an American colleague pointed out indignantly.

It is the combination of a majority in the Commons and the temptation to appeal to the voters above the heads of your own party that has encouraged hubris and ultimately led to Tony Blair's early retirement.

Which prime minister hasn't ended up disappointing the voters? But these days the moveable feast of policies, the squishy middle ground, the Third Way, also means that you end up losing the support of your party.

Modern British prime ministers are brilliant but lonely, and they benefit from none of the inherent respect which Americans harbour for the presidency. They may loathe the incumbent, but they revere the office.

Even when George W Bush retires he will still be addressed as Mr President. On Thursday, the prime minister becomes Mr Blair.


Send us your comments in reaction to Matt Frei's Washington diary using the link below:




MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

Matt Frei Troubled times
Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

MORE FROM MATT FREI
Jan - Jun 2008
 
Jul - Dec 2007
 
Jan - Jun 2007
 
2006 entries
 


RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific