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Britain's Blair to Depart June 27


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is the day that Britain's Tony Blair begins stepping down.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Today, I announce my decision to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party. The party will now select a new leader. On the 27th of June, I will tender my resignation from the office of prime minister to the queen.

INSKEEP: So he quits as party leader, then as prime minister. He was a modernizer of the Labour Party, a U.S. ally much attacked for his support of the war in Iraq, winning one final election despite his own unpopularity.

Here's how a voter named Fiona McLaren(ph) summed it up when we found her in London's Exmouth Market.

Ms. FIONA McLAREN (British Voter): He started out as a young and funky guy. We were all very excited to have him as a prime minister, and unfortunately, he didn't give.

INSKEEP: Let's get some analysis from Matthew Parris, the Times of London columnist and former conservative Member of Parliament.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATTHEW PARRIS (Columnist, Times; Former Conservative Member of Parliament, United Kingdom): Hello.

INSKEEP: Even if you're tired of Tony Blair, is this is a sad day?

Mr. PARRIS: No, not for those of us that are Blairophobes, and I don't represent myself as an objective observer. I'm a columnist who has been critical of him from the start, and I think the person you spoke to said he started out as a young, funky guy was absolutely right. That is how he started out. The trouble is that funk doesn't age well. And 10 years of funk can go fairly stale, and he has stayed on for too long. This announcement is overdue.

INSKEEP: Is it worth mentioning what he did right at the beginning at this point?

Mr. PARRIS: He made a lot of promises right at the beginning. Very few of them have really come to pass. He did, however, capture the spirit of the age, perhaps better than any modern British politician has succeeded in doing.

He was a very 21st century prime minister. He understood Britain to be a changing country - a much more tolerant, much more inclusive, much more open sort of country than it had been. And because the opposition, the conservative party seemed so rooted in the 20th century. And because he seemed so much part of the way life was changing in Britain and because for the last 10 years we've been in a period of considerable economic prosperity, he has hung on.

INSKEEP: We spoke with a voter in London named Victoria Cork(ph) who said she was disappointed in all the red tape that Blair's government brought to the U.K. Can you explain for Americans what that complaint is about?

Mr. PARRIS: His has been a government without any clear ideological direction, except to leave in place many of the economic changes that his predecessors bequeathed to him. And yet, he personally has always been restless to communicate a sense of action, energy, momentum and direction. And I think the conflict between a government that didn't have much big to do and a government that wanted to talk as though it was doing a lot has resolved itself into a lot of very fidgety legislation, what we call the nanny-state legislation - little bits of red tape here, little bits of bureaucracy, and...

INSKEEP: What sort of things do you have to do now that you didn't have to do 10 years ago?

Mr. PARRIS: Well, to give one example, benefits. Welfare benefits are now exceedingly complicated. The forms that people have to fill in in order to get benefits are now so complicated that a large number of people entitled to welfare benefits are simple not claiming them. Pensioner benefits have been increased for the poor, but the poor have to fill out forms to show that they're poor, and a lot of pensioners don't want to do it.

Schools don't have the power that they used to have to expel troublesome pupils, and that's causing problems with discipline in schools.

There's been an awful lot of what we call nanny-state legislation, and it's beginning to irritate people.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the man who is likely to succeed Blair, almost certain to succeed him. Gordon Brown becomes the leader of the Labour Party, and within a few months then, the prime minister. Here's what a couple of voters had to say about him.

Mr. ASHLEY CARTER (British Voter): I have a lot of hopes, you know, because I do generally believe he's a man of stature.

Mr. RAJEEV NAIR(ph) (British Voter): He's obviously an intellectual heavyweight within the cabinet. He's very highly regarded in that regard. But he is not a people person. He doesn't relate, and I think, the electorates in the general world aren't going to warm to him.

INSKEEP: Ashley Carter and Rajeev Nair, two British voters. And Mr. Parris, who is this man?

Mr. PARRIS: Well, he is, at the moment, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is to say minister of finance, and he has been, through the whole of the Blair decade. And it's been a decade of considerable prosperity and low unemployment, and for that reason, Gordon Brown has become associated with economic solidity and economic success.

He is, personally, rather a dull public figure. He's a Scot, and amongst the English, there is something of a feeling that there are too many Scots at the top in government. He's pretty dour. He's pretty grumpy. He's pretty Presbyterian. That's what some people like about him. He hasn't got the kind of the fly public-podium charm that Tony Blair exudes, so he's thought to be solid. Whether he will be or not, we shall see.

INSKEEP: Mr. Parris, thanks very much.

Mr. PARRIS: It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times of London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.