LONDON—On May 5, the people of Britain voted to keep the Labor Party in and to get Labor's Tony Blair out. The beauty of a parliamentary system is that voters can send a mixed message like that.
The real election winner was Gordon Brown, Blair's chancellor, or finance minister. Blair and Brown are longtime rivals for power with Labor. They made a deal 11 years ago that Blair would run for Labor Party leader first and Brown would be his successor. The moment that Brown has been awaiting for years has almost arrived. "I expect to see Blair go within a year to 18 months," David Taylor, a Labor member of Parliament, told The Sunday Times.
In his previous two elections, Blair was a popular, charismatic figure. The Labor campaign was all about him. This year, Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown campaigned as a team. Why did Blair need to reach out to his rival? Look at their job ratings. In a poll last month by the British firm YouGov, only 46 percent of the British people thought that Blair was doing a good job, whereas 66 percent thought that Brown was doing a good job. "All the polling evidence is, if the Labor Party in this campaign had been led by Gordon Brown rather than Tony Blair, Labor would have won another landslide victory," said YouGov Chairman Peter Kellner.
Blair's burden was Iraq. On Election Night, Blair had to stand in embarrassment while a rival candidate in his own district—a father who lost his son in Iraq—delivered a concession speech in which he attacked Blair's war policy. "Tonight, there are lessons to be learned," Independent candidate Reg Keys said. "I hope in my heart that one day the prime minister may be able to say, 'Sorry.' "
The Iraq war resurfaced rather suddenly as an issue during the last week of the campaign. A leaked report revealed that Britain's attorney general had expressed serious doubts about whether going to war would be legal. Relatives of 10 dead soldiers delivered a letter to the prime minister threatening legal action unless the government conducted a full public inquiry into the legality of the war.
By last October, a majority of the British public had come to view the war as wrong, according to YouGov polls. But Britain's opposition Conservative Party had trouble attracting anti-war voters because it supported the war. Like Democratic nominee John Kerry in the U.S. presidential election, Conservative leader Michael Howard had voted to go to war. And like Kerry, Howard had to make a complex argument that he supported the war but not the way Blair had gotten into it.
Why did the Iraq issue hurt Blair more than President Bush? In Britain, it triggered a debate over Blair's character. "It is now widely felt that Tony Blair did not tell the truth," Kellner said. "He either misread the intelligence or willfully distorted it and therefore led Britain to war on a false prospectus."
Blair treated the issue like a marital spat. He said at a press conference, "All of a sudden, there you are, the British people, thinking, 'You're not listening.' And I think, 'You're not hearing me.' And before you know it, you raise your voice, I raise mine, and some of you throw a bit of crockery." Blair asked the voters to take him back: "Now you, the British people, have to sit down and decide whether you want this relationship to continue."
Did they? Yes and no. Labor won the election, making Blair the first Labor leader in history to win three elections in a row. But the voters gave him a bloody nose. His party's majority in the House of Commons was slashed from 161 to 66 seats. Labor took just 36 percent of the vote, the smallest share in history for a winning party.
Blair is expected to hand over party leadership to Brown before the next election. But when? One Labor MP who knows something about leaving the stage is two-time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson. She told The Sunday Times, "If Tony has been listening, as he says he has, he knows he has to lance the boil properly by going sooner rather than later."
The irony is, Brown supported Blair's Iraq policy. A reporter asked Brown at a pre-election press conference, "Would you have behaved in an identical way to Tony Blair, faced with the same circumstances?" Brown's answer: "Yes." Nevertheless, Iraq was Blair's policy. As chancellor, Brown had the economy—which in Britain right now is very good—as an issue. "We ask the British people, are you better off now than eight years ago?" Brown said when he launched his campaign. The answer was clearly yes. The economy was the issue that kept Labor in power.
Would Brown be very different from Blair as prime minister? A lot of party members think so. One Labor MP said, "I think he'd be a different kind of leader, because he's more in tune with the traditions of the Labor Party." Blair once told a party conference, "I believe we are at our best when we are at our boldest." Speaking to the same conference, Brown said that the party is "best when we are Labor."
For Brown to become prime minister, the voters had to keep Labor in power. They did. And they had to register dissatisfaction with Blair. They did that as well.