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Blair leaving may fray U.S. ties

The next British prime minister is unlikely to be as committed to the policies of the Bush administration.

Published September 8, 2006

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were great buddies. Not so Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson. But no matter how U.S. presidents and British prime ministers view each other, the "special relationship" between their countries invariably remains strong and friendly.

And so it is apt to continue even after British leader Tony Blair resigns within the next 12 months, as he announced Thursday that he intends to do.

"The degree of cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom is unlike that of any other two countries in the world," said Robert McGeehan, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "Almost by definition they will continue to be good allies regardless of who comes to power in either capital."

Yet Blair's strong support for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has hurt him politically, and his successor - yet to be decided by a party vote - is unlikely to be as committed.

"I think that the steadfastness that Blair has shown in Iraq and Afghanistan is unique, and it's a product of his conviction and his close relationship to George W. Bush," said Charles Kupchan, director for European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Whoever comes next, be he Tory or Laborite, there will be a rethinking of the nature and scope of both missions."

The next prime minister, whose unofficial job historically has been to serve as a bridge between the United States and Europe, may also find that role somewhat diminished by the growing friendship between Bush and the strong new German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

"That gives Bush a close ally on the continent," Kupchan said. "Since her election, there has been a clear shift in U.S. policy to put greater reliance on Germany."

The longest serving Labor prime minister, Blair said he will resign within a year although he declined to set an exact date. He has been under pressure from his own party to quit earlier than May to get a new leader in place before midterm elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

Since sweeping to power in 1997 on a pledge to end the "sleaze"' of the Conservative era, Labor has been dogged by sex and corruption scandals - and most significantly - growing internal opposition to the war in Iraq. Blair has booted aside senior Cabinet ministers who disagreed with him. On Wednesday, eight junior members of the government quit to protest his refusal to set a date for his own resignation.

Speaking on behalf of the Labor Party, the 53-year-old Blair apologized Thursday for the turmoil of the past week, "which, with everything that's been going on back here and in the world, has not been our finest hour, to be frank."

"But," he continued, "I think what is important now is that we understand that it's the interests of the country that come first and we move on."

Blair is Bush's closest ally in the war on terror, to the point he is frequently lampooned in the British media as the president's lap dog or errand boy. He drew special derision as a result of the recent G8 summit in Russia where Bush - unaware a microphone was on - greeted him with "Yo, Blair," and rebuffed his offer to go to the Mideast to try to mediate the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.

"It was a very gracious gesture because it would have been the United Kingdom failing, not the United States, but it did prove to a lot of people that he was Bush's poodle," McGeehan said. "In Britain, the prime minister has paid a big political price for his loyalty to Bush, which is widely misunderstood in my opinion. Blair believes in what he's doing, he's not doing it just because of Bush, but because we have real interests in common and we see the world the same way."

Polls show that Labor's support has plunged to 31 percent, the lowest in 19 years, while support for the Conservative Party, headed by its charismatic new leader David Cameron, has soared to 40 percent. But the deadline for the next general election is not until 2009 - though it can be held earlier at the prime minister's discretion - so Blair's immediate successor will also come from the Labor Party.

The frontrunner is his longtime rival and Downing Street neighbor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, 55. While other Laborites have criticized Blair over the Iraq war, the dour Scot has largely kept silent and it is unknown whether he would continue Blair's unwavering support of a war that has claimed 117 British soldiers.

However, Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, speculates Brown might start to withdraw troops from Iraq somewhat faster than Blair, with the same true for George Bush's successor.

"It's very difficult for the politicians who started the war to head for the exit, so often times they leave it to the next government," Kupchan said. "I don't think we know where Gordon Brown stands on Iraq, but I think it's safe to say that he is unlikely to have the same black and white view as Blair."

Another possible successor is Home Secretary John Reid, who was widely praised for his handling of the alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners. However, Reid was once known as a prodigious drinker and probably lacks the party support to become prime minister, experts say.

Regardless of policies, whoever succeeds Blair is apt to be in for much of the same sort of criticism.

"The British prime minister has this very awkward, difficult role, which is trying to translate the United States for the Europeans and translate Europeans for the United States," said Fran Burwell of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

"People even accused Margaret Thatcher of being too close to the American president but I think that's part of the lot in life of the British prime minister."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 08:27:44]

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