Tony Blair and the saddest political mistake

01.02.07 Publication:

This year in my country, Britain, one of our longest-serving and most famous prime ministers will announce his retirement. Tony Blair established a worldwide reputation as a highly-skilled, ultra-modern political leader by winning three general elections, by establishing very high popularity ratings, and by completely changing the stereotypical view of the left-wing party that he leads, namely Labour. He was also one of the youngest and arguably most handsome prime ministers any large developed country has had in modern times. And yet when he retires, he will not hear much applause. For he has stayed in office too long. His once-shining reputation is now badly tarnished.

            Ten years as prime minister, which is what Mr Blair will have had if he stays on as long as May, is an impressively long time for any leader, whether in politics or business. The truth, though, is that Mr Blair has stayed at least one year too long, or probably two years. Had he announced his retirement in early 2006 or early 2005 he would have left with much credit, even though his biggest foreign-policy decision—the invasion of Iraq alongside American troops—had turned out to be disastrous. Most people blame George Bush for that failure, not Mr Blair.

            It is true that many political leaders, both in Britain and elsewhere, end up more popular outside their country than in it. The local electorate sees too much of their leaders, and tends to get bored and disillusioned quite soon. Foreigners see other countries’ leaders only rarely when they make visits, and tend to think they are better than their own leaders. This was certainly the case for Mr Blair, who has for several years been much more popular in America and other foreign countries than in Britain. Now, though, his reputation is declining abroad too, and even in America.

            Why? The reason is a simple fact of political life, or perhaps one should say of governmental life. This simple fact is that the longer you are in office, the likelier it becomes that you will find yourself making choices that violate the principles or positions that you proudly laid down when you were campaigning for office. Eventually, in other words, every political leader comes to look like a hypocrite.

            The most vital skill of any politician is, of course, the ability to persuade your party and the electorate to vote you into office. To do that, you need to claim that you are somehow special, that you have beliefs and principles that are different from those of your rivals, and that you are more trustworthy than they are. But the second most vital skill for a politician is knowing when to retire.

            Junichiro Koizumi showed as prime minister that he had both skills, in abundance. Tony Blair, who is in many ways a similar type of politician to Mr Koizumi, has showed that he had only the first skill. He did not know when to retire.

            Mr Blair’s reputation has recently been damaged in three main ways. First, with British voters, he is increasingly seen as unethical, even crooked. When he ran for office in 1997, he claimed to have much cleaner hands than the rival Conservative Party, and vowed to rid British politics of campaign-finance abuses. But in recent months he has faced the worst humiliation of any British prime minister in history when the police chose to interview him as part of their investigation into whether he and his party have illegally sold royal honours and seats in the House of Lords (Britain’s entirely appointed Upper House of Parliament) in return for political donations.

            Second, all around Europe, Mr Blair’s frequent claims to be an idealistic, very moral leader were shown to be hollow at the end of 2006 when he blocked another police investigation into whether bribes had been paid by British defence companies to Saudi princes in return for a vast arms deal. He blocked the investigation after the Saudi government threatened reprisals, including ending its sharing of information about Al-Qaeda terrorists. The choice Mr Blair made, to block the investigation, was probably a quite realistic one, given the circumstances. But it exposed him in many people’s eyes as a hypocrite, because he has given so many speeches, all around the world, about the need for moral principles to drive foreign policy.

            Finally, Mr Blair’s decision to travel to the Middle East in early December in order to try to use his powers of diplomatic persuasion to help bring peace closer in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, turned out to be a mistake. Whereas on previous such trips he had been treated with respect, this time the leaders of Syria, Lebanon and even Iraq itself used public comments to show their disdain for his efforts. He was not the first outsider to fail to bring peace to the Middle East, and he will not be the last. But making such an obviously futile trip showed that he has run out of influence.

            This is a sad outcome, because Mr Blair has in fact been quite a good prime minister. He has continued the market-based reforms that Margaret Thatcher began, and has helped British people to become prouder of themselves. Historians may give him quite a favourable account. But today’s commentators will not.

            The lesson for other political leaders is clear, even if it is hard for them to carry it out. The lesson is that leaders should decide what it is they want to achieve in office, do it, and then leave—preferably while some of their colleagues are still begging them to stay. Mr Koizumi achieved that brilliantly. Whether Shinzo Abe will be able to do so remains to be seen. Currently, he is fighting to survive even a year in office, with his popularity plunging. It is not yet clear whether he really has the first vital political skill—of winning elections—let alone the second.