British PM Tony Blair announces resignation
The British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Thursday that he would step downon June 27, after a decade in office in which he fostered peace in Northern Ireland and followed the United States to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Surveying his time in power, Blair told supporters: "Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right."
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, it was right, Blair said, to "stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally, and I did so out of belief and so Afghanistan, and then Iraq - the latter bitterly controversial. "And removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was over with relative ease. But the blowback since, with global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. And for many it simply isn't and can't be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through." In a short, almost apologetic speech, Blair added: "I may have been wrong. That's your call. But believe one thing if nothing else, I did what I thought was right for my country." He ended with a simple, soft-spoken "good luck."
Treasury chief Gordon Brown, Blair's partner in reforming the Labour Party and a sometimes impatient rival in government, was expected to easily win election as the party's new leader and become the next prime minister.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced right after Blair's speech that he, too, would resign.
The 54-year-old Blair made his long-expected resignation announcement in Sedgefield, where he won election to Parliament in 1982, and where he announced in 1994 that he was a candidate to lead the Labour Party.
Blair embraced dozens of local activists as he arrived to greet around 250 supporters packed into the former mining village's Labour clubhouse. Some chanted "four more years," but were chided by the leader as he began his speech. "That's not on message for today," Blair joked.
Blair met earlier with Cabinet members, who left No 10 Downing Street without answering questions shouted by reporters swarming outside. "For once, Cabinet discipline is holding," quipped Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons.
Brown has already declared he will be a candidate; at least one opponent from the party's left wing was expected to announce his candidacy on Thursday afternoon. John Burton, Blair's political adviser in Sedgefield, said Blair would continue to represent the district in Parliament until the next national election, expected in 2009, unless he is offered "a major international or United Nations job."
The Iraq war, a police investigation of allegations that the government traded honors for political contributions and endless questions about when Blair would step down overshadowed Blair's last term in government, after winning the third term in May 2005.
He has stopped short of openly endorsing Brown, a stern Scot who has long coveted the top job, but said last week that Brown would make "a great prime minister."
"One of the things I very much hope will be part of the legacy of the government is the strongest economy in the Western world which he has been responsible for," Blair said.
Blair led Labour to two landslide election wins in 1997 and 2001, and a narrower but still comfortable victory in 2005. The first term was marked by several significant initiatives: the Bank of England was given the freedom to set interest rates, Scotland and Wales were given regional governments, London gained an elected mayor and all but 92 hereditary members were ejected from the House of Lords.
In 1998, Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern led successful negotiations for a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, launching a process which reached its culmination earlier this week as former enemies from the Protestant and Catholic communities joined to form a new regional government.
The Iraq war severely dented Blair's popularity. Blair's close alliance with US President George W Bush was unpopular at home, there were demonstrations in Britain opposing the US-led invasion before it began, and the government's claims that Saddam Hussein was building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction proved false. For more than a year, Labour has consistently trailed in opinion polls behind a Conservative Party revived by its new leader, David Cameron.
In local and regional elections earlier this month, Labour lost hundreds of seats in city and county councils, and was beaten into second place in the Scottish Parliament elections by the Scottish National Party, which advocates independence.
"This is the greatest nation on earth," Blair said on Thursday, "so it has been an honor to serve it. I give my thanks to you the British people for the times that I have succeeded, and my apologies for the times I've fallen short."
In recent months, Blair's thoughts have turned to the lessons of his decade in power.
"When I first started in politics, I wanted to please everyone," Blair said during a tour of the Middle East in December. "After a time I learned that you can't please everyone, and you learn that the best thing is to do what you think is right and everyone can make their judgment."
Blair is the first British prime minister since Harold Wilson in 1976 to leave at a time of his own choosing, rather than by losing an election or being forced out by the party.
Blair's leaving had little of the drama of downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who announced her resignation in 1990 just nine days after she was the target of a savage resignation speech by her former Cabinet colleague, Geoffrey Howe.