Charles Richardson writes:

The three surviving leaders of
2003’s “coalition of the willing” – George Bush, Tony Blair and John
Howard – are all facing retirement issues. Bush in a sense has the
easiest time of it, because the decision is out of his hands: the US
constitution bans any president from serving more than two terms. So
any second term president is to some extent a “lame duck”, and Bush has
an acute case of the problem; the war is going badly, and Bush’s
Republicans are fighting to defend their Congressional majority in this
year’s mid-term elections.

The other two, Blair and Howard, have
more of a choice. Howard, so far, has given an object lesson in how
it’s done. He has dropped hints about retirement, but never committed
himself. It seems overwhelmingly likely that if he does decide to
retire – still possible this year, but much more likely in two to three
year’s time – the announcement will be made suddenly. A press
conference will be called with no prior warning, and he’ll announce his
retirement a few days hence, just as Bob Carr did last year in New
South Wales.

Tony Blair took a different approach, by saying
explicitly before last year’s election that he would not serve another
full term. As a result, he is already a “lame duck”: every Labour
backbencher knows that Blair will not be the leader at the next
election, so there’s no particular reason to pay attention to him.

Not
coincidentally, he has been having a horrible time. The police are
investigating his role in the alleged sale of peerages, and now two of
his most senior ministers have clouds hanging over their heads – home
secretary Charles Clarke for a scandal over failure to deport foreign
convicts, and deputy prime minister John Prescott for having an affair
with a staff member – and this week’s local government elections are
expected to be disastrous for Labour.

This is ironic, because
Blair is the younger man and could easily have chosen to keep his
options open. Instead, he chose to placate sections of his party by
recognising chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown as his successor –
exactly the recognition that Howard has declined to give Peter
Costello. Brown’s succession is still not totally assured, since some
Blairites may push for generational change, but it is common ground
that Blair himself is out of the picture. If the last few weeks are any
guide, his departure is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

From
the point of view of the retiring leader’s own power, Howard’s approach
is clearly superior. He still bestrides his narrow government like a
colossus. Whether it is better for his party’s long-term fortunes is a
different question, and the jury is still out on that.

Peter Fray

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