Today's announcement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he is definitely stepping down within a year, may come as a surprise to some in the US - unfamiliar with the machinations of British politics and the Machiavellian nature of its politicians.
Unlike the US with its 22nd Amendment to the constitution - that precludes a President holding office for more than two terms (which is almost all that stands between us and 4 - or even 40 - more years of George W. Bush!) - there are no term limits on British Prime Ministers. They serve ostensibly at Her Majesty's pleasure. Loosely translated - until the public and/or their own parliamentary supporters tire of them.
Margaret Thatcher found that out to her cost - and disgust - in 1990. Though she had led her Conservative Party to three consecutive election victories - her own cabinet members eventually cottoned on to what her detractors had been arguing for years. That this nagging harridan with her abrasive disdain for anyone who disagreed with her (sound familiar?!) was leading their party into an abyss. Her nonchalance at the effects her economic policies were having on Britain's social fabric had alarmed even the (by law) apolitical Queen of England - and eventually the cabinet sheep who surrounded their wolf-like leader ganged up on her and herded her from office.
When Tony Blair won the first of his landmark landslide election victories in 1997 - it seemed like a new dawn for the Labour Party. He had successfully transformed it from its image as a dog-eared, dogmatic last-century socialist movement into a sleek, new centrist party in the mould of the Bill Clinton/DLC-led Democrats.
Blair was a successful reformer for the first four years in office and then sought a second term. (British parliaments do not have a fixed term - but a variable-length term that cannot exceed five years.) He secured this in 2001 with another landslide victory - and at that point he could look towards a rosy future with theoretically as long in power as he chose (subject to re-election). In reality he was always going to stand down after a decent period in office - perhaps after a total of 12 years so that he could eclipse Thatcher's 11 years in Downing Street. But the essence of his position was that, unlike the hapless so-called "Iron Lady," he would determine his own departure date.
Enter George W. Bush.
It's an axiom that Britain and the USA have a special relationship. It has existed for over 200 years. Ever since Britain ceded independence to the US - skillfully allowing Americans the illusion that they had wrested sovereignty from George III. (Oh alright - I will cop to a smigeon of face-saving British spin on that part!) Whatever the differences between the two nations - British Prime Ministers and American Presidents have strived to maintain good personal and political rapport. But there is a difference between a relationship and supplication.
Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam as LBJ would have preferred - but he didn't break ranks with the US on its overall policy. He never condemned it outright - and LBJ and then Nixon continued to work with Wilson. Reagan and Thatcher famously got along famously... They shared the same world view and for better or worse (this is not the place to argue it) acted as catalysts for some radical shifts in economic priorities and social values in their respective nations in the 1980s.
Blair enjoyed an excellent relationship with Bill Clinton - who he evidently idolized. And he had been looking forward to working with Al Gore. But he (and we) got Bush. At that point Blair had two options.
Work with him - but act cautiously having been warned of the agenda that Bush's Neo-Conmen advisors had been openly spouting since 1997. Or become close to Bush in order to have some restraining effect. The so-called "keep-your-enemies-closer" tactic.
But Blair baffled his supporters by choosing a third option.
He became embedded with Bush. He formed a supplicant partnership with the American President that was so close - that if they'd been living in the same city it would have inspired Ann Coulter to denounce it as a dangerous threat to heterosexual marriage. (Just one of many topics that Coulter knows nothing about.)
Supporting Bush's military excursion into Afghanistan was one thing - and while wary of where it might lead if unchecked - in large part, the British public went along with it.
Endorsing and supporting Bush's war with Iraq was the beginning of Blair's undoing. He could have followed Wilson's example of very limited support for LBJ and maintained some measure of independence and respect. But he became as submissive as Ned Beatty's character in the infamous backwoods scene in the movie "Deliverance". He even squealed on cue. Of course his squealing was so eloquent and charming (he did go to Oxford after all!) that many in America thought highly of him. (As the backwoodsman who did to Beatty's character what Bush did to Blair would have said: "He's got a real purty mouth, ain't he?")
But progressives in Britain (and elsewhere) were rightly appalled.
There is no denying that in respect of economic and social issues, Blair's Labour government has been a quantum improvement on the morally-bankrupt Conservative Party - who after 18 years had ravaged and ransacked Britain's social fabric, its health and welfare services - and sold off the nation's "family silver" (its oil and nationally-owned transport and other assets) to finance those oh-so-enticing tax cuts beloved as election bribes by conservatives everywhere.
All the more pointless then that Blair's inexplicable and needless choice to spend five years as Bush's prison bitch should have brought him to the point where he least wanted to be. He has become his party's Margaret Thatcher...
It seems that the wages of his sins have been his transformation from squealing hog into lame duckling
It's like the famous "Seinfeld" episode where a valet parking attendant's B.O. is so strong that it permanently lingered in a car that he'd occupied for just a few moments - and eventually the car had to be dispensed with. The stench of getting into bed with George W. Bush will never wash off.
In one of the most celebrated examples of British parliamentary wit - the 18th century journalist and politician John Wilkes was once told by his political rival the Earl Of Sandwich that he would "either die of 'the pox' or on the gallows." "That depends" replied Wilkes "on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles."
George W. Bush of course has no principles - except expedience and smug, cynical contempt for the non-Conservatives who he and Karl Rove gamed into voting for him twice. But Tony Blair DID embraced Bush's political mistress - the Neo-Con arguments about Iraq. And it is for THAT carnal knowledge that his political career is needlessly dying of the pox...