JO - Tony Blair's last day as PM
Tony Blair's last day as PM
Sunday, July 01, 2007
Ever since the Iraq war there has been a substantial section of the British public that felt Tony Blair should resign. Before the outbreak of war, London saw its largest ever anti-war demonstration. And feelings have continued to run high, as the situation in Iraq has gone from bad to worse.
Naturally, this public unhappiness has been reflected amongst Labour MPs. Yet, when the moment for Tony Blair to step down came last week, it was curiously emotional. Parliament is at the centre of British political life in a way it is not in Jamaica. The British Parliament meets every day, for very long hours and is one of the most badly behaved in the world. Because we spend such long hours together, day after day, MPs are easily swept by collective emotion.
So Tony Blair's last day was particularly dramatic. The chamber of the House of Commons was packed. In a quirk of tradition the House of Commons does not have enough seats for all the MPs. So on big occasions like this, hundreds of MPs have to stand and the chamber is full to bursting.
It all adds to an electric atmosphere. And in the visitors' gallery to watch Blair's last performance were his wife Cherie and his children, including seven year-old Leo (the first child born to a serving prime minister for centuries).
I walked across from my office in Parliament to the chamber of the House of Commons to hear Tony Blair address us for the last time. Just ahead of me was our new prime-minister-to-be Gordon Brown. Suddenly, Andrew Smith MP, who is an old friend, rushed up to him and hugged him. Englishmen do not "do" emotion, but for a few minutes, all Gordon Brown's feelings were on display. And I realised just how much it meant to him to finally become Britain's prime minister.
Brown is someone who has literally been waiting all his adult life to become prime minister. In the chamber, Conservative, Liberal and Labour MPs vied with each other to shower Tony Blair with praise. In his final minutes as prime minister, Tony Blair's voice was cracking and he seemed overcome. His last words were "That is that. The end."
Tony Blair's departure marks the end of an era. Gordon Brown is the new prime minister. And he is determined to stamp his mark on government by embarking on a big reshuffle of his Cabinet. Many politicians closely associated with Tony Blair have been shown the door. One casualty has been Baroness Valerie Amos. Valerie was born in Guyana and has a local government background. Dignified and always beautifully dressed, she could always be relied upon to say exactly what Tony Blair wanted said. It was Valerie that Blair dispatched to Africa to get key African countries to sign up for the Iraq War.
She failed, but it was typical of her exemplary loyalty to Blair. But she has never pretended to be a politician. That and her closeness to Tony Blair have resulted in her removal from the Cabinet. Gordon has offered to nominate her for a new position as the European Union envoy to the African Union. The new post will suit Valerie perfectly. But there will be other candidates. So Britain will have to get the support of other EU countries for Valerie to be assured of the job.
Last year, Valerie was nominated by Britain for a top position at the United Nations. Unfortunately, other countries refused to support her. This was largely due to Blair's unpopularity with the international community over Iraq and the sense that Valerie would simply be his mouthpiece. We must all keep our fingers crossed that other countries will prove willing to support her for this European Union job.
At the time of writing, Gordon Brown is still announcing new junior appointments. So it is too early to say how many black people will be in his government overall.
But Tony Blair has not bowed out of British political life altogether. There is still one last act of the drama. Since last year, the police have been investigating allegations that he sold peerages in return for campaign contributions.
This is illegal under British law. The day after he resigned the police revealed that they had questioned him on the matter for the third time. (No serving British prime minister has ever been questioned by the police as part of a criminal investigation before.) Tony Blair's great political friend and role model is Bill Clinton. But at least Clinton got his scandals out of the way before he actually resigned. The scandals about campaign finance are still dogging Tony Blair.
Tony Blair has been one of Britain's longest-serving prime ministers. It would be tragic if he went down in history as the first prime minister to be prosecuted for corruption.