This Is Blair's Darkest Hour, shouts one headline. Leak Reveals Dithering PM Is Out Of Touch, says another, while a third is more succinct: The Embattled Mr. Blair. But only the last one was printed during the most recent of Tony Blair's many crises. The others ran even before the British Prime Minister led his party to a second landslide victory in the 2001 election. Blair can always take comfort that whatever consumes the political class in Westminster like the current flap over his arrogant announcement, in a press release and without prior consultation, that he planned to eliminate the 1,400-year-old office of Lord Chancellor, create a Supreme Court and appoint his old flatmate to be Minister of Constitutional Affairs he remains the most consistently popular Prime Minister since the 1960s.
But at the risk of offering one of those gloomy prognoses he is so good at confounding, I would argue that Blair has reached the apogee of his premiership. He isn't out of fuel, but he is beginning his descent, heading toward a legacy substantially less than might be expected from an energetic, skilled leader with a huge parliamentary majority. The big forces constraining Blair's future are evident in the minicrises that have recently dogged him. After years of complex, elegant waffling over the euro, he announced in early June another complex, elegant waffle over the euro, to which voters remain decisively opposed. No one expects a referendum will be called until after the next election. That almost certainly means at least three more years of awkward limbo, with Blair unable to anchor his pro-euro sentiments in any specific policy and thwarted in his big ambition to lead Britain into the heart of the Continent.
Foreign policy, after controversial interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo paid off, used to be a place where Blair soared, but Iraq is turning it into a millstone. The coalition's quick victory has been eclipsed by the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, on which he grounded the case for war. Last week his former International Development Minister, Clare Short, accused him of "honorable deception" lying to get backing for a conflict he had secretly promised George W. Bush to fight. Downing St. officials say they're confident the skeptics will look stupid when wmd are found, that Blair didn't lie and that polls show voters think the war was worth fighting regardless. But the shambolic occupation means the political peril of his central foreign-policy gamble standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush persists. The British "had nothing to do with the way the occupation was organized," says an American official. "They're not happy, and they're saying, 'I told you so.'" But Blair is still stuck with the mess. A trip next month to Washington to pick up a gold medal from Congress for his steadfast support is being managed to minimize the "Gorbachev effect" getting applause abroad for things unpopular at home. And no matter how Iraq resolves, it is likely to be Blair's last big foreign adventure. There's no other place Bush might fight where he will follow.
That leaves Blair the hard slog of Labour's core mission: fixing the public services. Some improvements are beginning to show; the best British 15-year-olds now perform close to the top of international league tables, and last week a doctors' panel noted big gains in the speed of getting anti-clotting drugs to heart-attack patients, something the government had targeted. However, serious new money has started flowing to schools and hospitals only in the last two years, not enough to redress two decades of relative stinginess; even now British health spending per person is just average for Europe. In a major speech last week, Blair touted the 25,000 new teachers hired under Labour for 24,000 schools.
Other accomplishments ministers trumpet rest on cooked statistics, like the major London hospital that phoned the patients on its waiting list to offer operations in two days, knowing most wouldn't be able to manage it but allowing the hospital to say it met its waiting-list target. Half the public already believes Blair's policies won't improve public services; with his own former ministers calling him a liar, cynicism about rosy claims can only rise. Blair's problem is that nowhere in public services has there been the sharp, widely felt surge in quality of life of the sort that Rudolph Giuliani's crime crackdown brought to New York.
In last week's speech, Blair offered a tangled road map out of these difficulties, amounting to slightly greater local control of public services, layered in dire warnings about the Conservatives not that they yet stand any chance of beating Labour. A major rethink of core strategy is just not in the cards. A Blair aide says, "He's not thinking about leaving, but he's thinking about his legacy, which means that psychologically he may have passed the halfway mark." The best headline for the rest of the Blair era: more of more of the same.