British Prime Minister Tony Blair was showered with tributes on Wednesday as he handed over power to finance minister Gordon Brown amid growing signs he is to become a Middle East peace envoy.
Lawmakers gave Blair a standing ovation at an emotional last question-and-answer session in the House of Commons, before he declared "that is that. The end" and went off to Buckingham Palace to formally resign. Blair again fuelled speculation that he will take on the Quartet's envoy role, saying a two-state solution is the only way to bring peace to the Middle East, and saying it be a huge task. “I believe it is possible to do that but it will require,” added Blair, who was to hand over to his finance minister Gordon Brown later in the day, he told parliament. During his last session with lawmakers, Blair said he was “sorry” for the danger faced by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the most controversial decisions of his premiership. But he was defiant, refusing to accept critics' views that British troops are fighting in vain. “I don't and I never will. I believe they're fighting for the security of this country and wider world against people who would destroy our way of life,” he said.
Most of the session was taken up with plaudits from lawmakers from his own Labor party and Conservatives, including Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley, whose recent election climaxed one of Blair's biggest achievements. Paisley wished Blair well in any Middle East role, drawing a parallel with the reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. “I hope that what happened in Northern Ireland will be repeated,” he said, calling it a “colossal task” for Blair. Visibly choking back emotion, Blair he paid tribute to lawmakers who over the years have assailed him at the weekly prime minister's questions over the last decade. “Some may belittle politics but we know who are engaged in it that it is where people stand and fall,” he said. “If it is on occasion the place of low skullduggery it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.” He signed off: “I wish everyone, friend or foe, well and that is that, the end.”
The formal handover was scheduled to take place at Queen Elizabeth II's official London residence. Blair was to be followed at Buckingham Palace by Brown who was to be asked to form a government. The finance minister, who took over from Blair as Labor leader on Sunday, received an early political boost Tuesday when a lawmaker from the opposition Conservative Party defected to join Labor.
Blair became prime minister in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative government after leading Labor to the biggest parliamentary majority for half a century with a strong public mandate for change. But his popularity ratings dropped considerably, mostly because of his decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and support for the so-called “war on terror”. In an interview with The Sun newspaper published Wednesday, US President George W. Bush rejected the allegation that Blair was his uncritical “poodle”, dismissing it as “just silly ridicule”. Blair has won praise at home for social reforms like gay rights and introducing a minimum wage, as well as resolving the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and abroad for leading efforts to tackle climate change and increase aid and assistance to Africa.
Brown, 56, stewarded Britain through record economic expansion but his serious style is a marked contrast to Blair's eloquent and easy, media-friendly persona. Both men entered parliament in 1983, once shared an office and were the chief architects behind the restyling of Labor, but their friendship soured as Brown believed Blair had reneged on a deal to hand over power sooner. He has promised to stay true to Blair's progressive centre-left agenda but introduce a more open form of government with parliament at the centre. Brown was expected to announce his senior ministers on Wednesday or Thursday. Speculation has been rife for days over what Blair will do after he leaves office.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern fuelled rumors an imminent announcement on Blair's appointment as envoy to the Middle East Quartet of the United Nations, Russia, the European Union and the United States. “I spoke to him about this on Friday night when he told me that he was going to take it ... He thinks, and I believe he is right, that if you have hands-on, persistent engagement you can make real progress,” Ahern told RTE radio. (Economic Times)