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Tony Blair took a big risk in siding with the U.S. in the war against Saddam Hussein. The British public was sharply divided on the merits of going to war, and skeptical of President George W. Bush's motives. But Blair decided early on that Britain's long-term interests required it to join with the U.S. As it turned out, his gamble paid off -- though you would hardly know it from the way he is being harried by the press and by fellow politicians for everything from misusing intelligence to justify the war to a clumsily handled mid-June cabinet reshuffle.
But Blair, 50, is that rare politician who can keep his eye on the big picture. Part of what makes him a European political star is that he almost never allows himself to be ruffled by the daily storms. Although the messy postwar situation in Iraq could do him some damage, Blair has won two elections by landslides, and is well poised to triumph again. Above all, he wants to prove that a left-leaning government can be pragmatic enough to retain power over a long stretch. "The point of our politics is to exercise power for the good of the people -- not to protest from the sidelines," he told the Fabian Society, a venerable left-wing think tank in London, on June 17.
Blair uses the word "radical" a lot, but the truth is that Britain did not need a revolution when he took office in 1997. His predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, had already done most of the heavy lifting, curbing trade union power and freeing up the economy from stifling government control. Though he would be loath to admit it, Blair's main task has been consolidating Thatcher's work. His big goals are sustaining economic growth, making Britain more of an equal-opportunity society, and securing the country's place in the world, especially in Europe. Indeed, under Blair, Britain's relations with its Continental partners have been far more constructive than they were under either Thatcher or her successor, John Major. Blair has managed to pull this off while maintaining close ties with the prickly Bush Administration -- a hard balancing act.
The going has been tougher at home, but Blair can still claim some domestic victories. For starters, he has presided over one of the Western world's more robust economies, with growth averaging 2.5% a year during his tenure, though it has slowed somewhat of late. His campaigns to fix the creaky National Health Service and to assure that every British child has access to an adequate education have yet to pay dividends, but they demonstrate that Blair has got his priorities straight. He has also pushed through reforms of Britain's overly centralized system of government, handing some powers to Scotland and Wales and creating a mayor of London.
The question now is what more Blair can accomplish. He very much wants Britain to adopt the euro, arguing that the country will be marginalized if it stays out too long. Yet on June 10, he deferred to his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who judges that Britain is not yet prepared economically to take up the single currency. In any event, the British public is against it by a margin of 2 to 1. So Blair has calculated that he had better bide his time before calling a referendum on the subject.
Blair looks pretty much unassailable politically. No one within his own Labour Party is likely to challenge him as leader. And while a recent poll commissioned by The Times shows the Conservatives have narrowed the gap with Labour to just 4%, Blair can take comfort from the mediocrity of his opposition. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is nowhere near as charismatic as Blair. Few political analysts give the Conservatives much of a shot at winning the next election, which is expected in the spring of 2005. Politics is unpredictable, but it appears that Tony Blair will have time to keep patiently advancing his agenda.