Tony Blair went at the moment of his choosing. But eventually, the moment was largely determined by a narrow window of opportunity. This was the week where his contributions to peace in Northern Ireland eclipsed his contributions to the conflict in Iraq. It also was the week of his tenth anniversary as Prime Minister.
The Times makes its sentiments clear. Its article reads like a long-prepared, mischievous (but fascinating) obituary.
Remember when ASBOs were first proposed by a fresh-faced Tony Blair in 1995? Or when Sharon Storer publicly ambushed Blair in 2001? And who could forget the G8 Summit in St Petersberg in 2007, when a live microphone picked up President Bush greeting the Prime Minister with the words: “Yo Blair”?
Equally unbalanced in the opposite direction was the glossy PM Pics on the Official Downing Street website
This gave the clue to the planning behind this week’s announcement: Ten years at number ten, May 2nd 1997- 2007.
Taking both views together, we quickly recapture some of the highlights and lowlights of his leadership.
Maggie’s influence on Blair
By 2005, Tony Blair was being compared with Margaret Thatcher for his Presidential style of leadership. There were also prescient suggestions that he might also have further parallels in the nature of his departure. Political Journalist John Sergeant was one such commentator. His insightful remarks, almost as an aside, can be found in his biographic description of his own encounters with Margaret Thatcher.
But if Maggie could claim political gain from her military adventure in The Falklands, Blair’s legacy increasingly is seen as the architect of the Iraq war, and (most cruelly) as Bush’s poodle.
‘Blair has been widely criticized from within his own party for championing the policy on Iraq of U.S. President George W. Bush. There is a general perception in the UK that Blair repeatedly misled the UK parliament and public in echoing the U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that invading and occupying Iraq was legal. As a result, some Members of Parliament have formed a group to call for impeachment hearings. Further pressure was put on Blair in September 2004, during the UK Labour Party conference, when the London Evening Standard newspaper published details of a leaked Pentagon briefing paper, Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned. The document reveals that in October 2002, the Pentagon finalized its Full Operational Battle Plan 1003V for the Iraq war, at a time when Blair was insisting that no decisions had been made about whether to go to war.
Independent political editor Andrew Grice pinpointed the moment Tony Blair lost his authority as November 9th 2005, 4:56 pm.
Mr Blair’s first Commons defeat since coming to power in 1997 was heavier than expected and provoked speculation at Westminster about how long he could remain Prime Minister. [His] personal authority was badly dented … when he suffered a humiliating defeat over his plan to allow the police to detain suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without charge. [The defeat] was heavier than expected and provoked speculation at Westminster about how long he could remain Prime Minister.
Leadership choice and The Tarrasch principle
I have sometimes mused on Chess as a powerful metaphor for strategic decision-making. Specifically, The Tarrasch Principle, advices chess players to take action ‘because you want, or because you must, and not just because you can’. Tony Blair, like so many leaders, wanted to preserve his options on that biggest decision of all, the moment of his going. As hard as he tried to secure wriggle room, he found himself being pinned down. Eventually the next best thing to clinging on, was to go ‘before things got worse’. It was a symbolically convincing moment. He went not because he wanted to, nor because he was able, but because he had to, lest there would be no better time in the future.