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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glancing Back at the Blair Record

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If ever there were a political conundrum, this is it. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced he would leave office on June 27. The decision came only days after dreadful results for his Labour Party in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections, mired in the "loans-for-peerages" scandal -- which may yet lead to criminal charges against some of his closest aides, who arranged seats in the House of Lords for leading Labour backers -- and overshadowed by the dark cloud of Iraq. Yet extraordinarily after such a politically turbulent decade, a poll last week showed that 61 percent of voters think that Blair has done a good job overall.

What is the Blair attraction? The prosaic answer is that enough people feel reasonably affluent after 10 years of Labour rule to give the departing British leader his due, but not their adoration. Too much that was promised on May 2, 1997, as Britain savored Blair's first landslide victory, has not been delivered. The "New Britain" of his early rhetoric -- a modernized version of Labour's ancestral dream of the "New Jerusalem" where schools, hospitals, transport and welfare services would match Continental European levels -- simply did not materialize.

Blair understood in many cases what had to be done. But too often the story was too little, too late, nothing at all or public spending bonanzas unaccompanied by reform. In public policy the dominant narrative of the Blair years was one of lost opportunity. He was right (in my view) about the war on terror and in his unflinching support for U.S. efforts in the Middle East, but never persuaded the British public. The voters came to regard Iraq not as a war that had to be won, but as a metaphor for all that disappointed them about Blair.

Yet on the spectrum of political sentiment, disenchantment is a long way from loathing. However deep their grievances about Britain's antiquated public services and scandalous transport infrastructure, however profound their contempt for his government's addiction to spin and its alleged lies about the case for war in Iraq, however sharp their sense of dashed expectations and unfulfilled hopes, voters believe they've been reasonably well served by the economic policy of the Blair era.

Blair is richly entitled to feel that his chancellor of the Exchequer, rival and now formal heir, Gordon Brown, failed to support and often thwarted his reforms of education and the state-run National Health Service. But he owes Brown a huge debt for granting independence to the Bank of England in 1997 and for refusing to take Britain into the euro currency. On these two pillars has economic stability been built -- which is one of many reasons why the Brownites feel that their man's turn at the helm is long overdue.

Such policy audits, however, do not do full justice to the cultural and psychological impact a politician of Blair's stature can have upon his times. He was often accused of vapidity, of a tendency to the trite and the glib. His detractors hated his embrace of popular culture, the verb-less sentences in his speeches and his insistence that he was a "pretty straight sort of guy." It was said that with this prime minister you had to "take the smooth with the smooth."

True enough. But the terrible error of the Blairophobes was always to underestimate his political powers, his capacity to connect with the public and his unexpected reserves of determination. He won elections on a scale undreamt of by previous Labour leaders, chalking up an aggregate of parliamentary majorities that surpasses even Margaret Thatcher's mighty record. He did not match the Iron Lady's transformation of the country, but he restored two-party democracy to Britain. He inherited a party that had just chalked up its fourth successive general election defeat and bequeaths one that might yet win a fourth successive victory.

He dominated his era spectacularly. Even those who hated him could not avoid his gravitational pull, and were forced to define themselves in relation to this singular politician. The legendary charm faded, inevitably. But even at the last it was doing its work, as Blair on Tuesday put the finishing touches on a remarkable power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland between once-sworn enemies, hard-line Unionist Ian Paisley and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.

For as long as he was Labour leader, he was the magnetic north of British politics, the fixed point that set the trajectory of friend and foe alike. He saw off four Conservative Party leaders -- John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard -- none of whom came close to a truly effective anti-Blair strategy.

The answer, as the present Tory leader David Cameron has grasped, was to give up that particular battle as lost, absorb the lessons of Blairism, and look beyond it. Cameron is happy to style himself as "Blair's heir" -- another English public schoolboy with a talent for communication, a gift for reassurance and a whiff of generational change about him -- and march toward the center ground of British politics, which has been so successfully colonized by New Labour for more than a decade. Small wonder, then, that so many senior Blairites find the Tory leader more appealing than they do the grim Scot who'll be the next prime minister.

If recent history has one indisputable lesson, it is that reconstruction is harder than regime change. After many bursts of "shock and awe" attacks, subverting Blair through his allies or plotting to remove him, Brown has at last seen off his old rival: The so-called September coup last year finally did the trick, when rebellious Labour backbenchers forced the prime minister to promise to leave by this summer -- and Blair will soon be gone.

The Cold War-like standoff of the Blair-Brown rivalry -- a factional impasse in the Labour Party when the Tories were largely irrelevant -- is going to be replaced by something much more fluid, much more bitter and much less predictable. Three forces will be vying for position: the Brown government, the neo-Blairite insurgents and the Cameron Conservatives. It will be an ugly conflict, the outcome of which is unknown. But one thing is for sure: Brown had better brace himself for a wave of Blair nostalgia before too long, and the sound of mournful voters singing, "Tony, we hardly knew ye."

Matthew d'Ancona is editor of the Spectator. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.