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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 15:22 GMT
Perils of a globetrotting PM
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair looking for global role
Nick Assinder

There is no doubt that Tony Blair's globetrotting has done him a power of good both on the world stage and within his own party.

Since 11 September he has engaged in a series of high profile trips which have portrayed him as joint leader of the Western world along with his unlikely new ally George Bush.

It has given him an international profile to challenge even Margaret Thatcher in her heyday. And it has hugely strengthened his grip on power and on his government.

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
Byers facing criticism
But, as others before him have discovered - and as Stephen Byers is currently learning - leaving the country can be a dangerous enterprise.

Most memorably, Margaret Thatcher was out of the country during a vital stage in the challenge to her leadership.

Her refusal to cancel a trip to Paris during the ballot was seen as arrogant and ill-judged.

It certainly did nothing to dispel the idea amongst many of her colleagues that she believed she was invincible and that her MPs would never have the guts to dump her.

Little country

Then there was the previous Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, who returned from a sun-kissed summit in the depths of the Winter of Discontent to reports he uttered the ill-chosen words: "Crisis - what crisis?"

Numerous ministers have also found themselves in trouble after going on holiday just as a crisis was about to engulf their department. Stephen Byers is only the most recent example.

No one would want to deny ministers their holidays, although there is a legitimate question mark over the timing of Mr Byers' break at the time rail strikes were scheduled.

But the desire amongst prime ministers to make an impact on the global stage is of a different order.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher looked to the world
It seems to suggest that leading their own little country just isn't good enough any more.

Those seeking to ensure their place in history appear to believe that can only be done by moving international events.

Lady Thatcher is clearly just as proud of her role in defeating Communism - whatever that may have been - as she is of her formidable domestic legacy.

And there is no doubt that, thanks to her international profile and relationship with leaders including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, she became seen as something more than merely the British prime minister.

Wider influence

And, not for the first time, Tony Blair appears to be taking his lead from her.

He too is eager to maintain special relationships with both the US and Russian leaders while attempting to exert a wider influence around the world.

Some believe that, with a naturally more inward looking President in Washington, Mr Blair sees himself as a Bill Clinton substitute.

The danger, of course, is that it will appear he is more concerned with his international image than he is in sorting out domestic problems.

Critics of his presidential style also claim that, if you run a one-man-band government then things are bound to go wrong when the one man is out of the country.

The prime minister's aides are quick to point out that Mr Blair has only done what is expected of any prime minister.

Pivotal force

To a large extent that is true. But what the prime minister's critics are particularly concerned about is the nature of his travels.

They claim he is attempting to cast himself as some sort of global saviour and that his success in achieving an historic second full Labour term has gone to his head and led him to seek even greater things.

Others take a different view. They believe that he fully understands the likelihood of his leadership ultimately ending in failure - as is the case with most of his predecessors.

And, while future historians may squabble about how good or bad he was for Britain, Mr Blair wants to offer them an alternative image of himself as a pivotal force in the shaping of the history of the early 21st century.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
06 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair handles diplomacy hazards
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Make or break on transport
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