London: British Prime Minister Tony Blair told ministers of his resignation plans on 10 May and earned tributes even ahead of the public announcement that he was ending 10 years in power.
Finance minister Gordon Brown, the frontrunner to replace Blair despite their rivalry, highlighted the prime minister’s “unique leadership” at a cabinet meeting in London before Blair flew off to his northern England constituency to announce his plans, said a Downing Street spokesman.
“There was much thumping of the table,” said the spokesman, briefing reporters on the 15-minute cabinet session.
“Gordon paid a very full tribute to Tony in there,” added Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain.
Blair, 54, is likely to stand down in early July after 10 years in power which started with the handover of Hong Kong to China on 1 July 1997 and guiding the royal family and the nation through the trauma of the death of Princess Diana.
He also presided over a booming British economy but for many his legacy risks being clouded by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His premiership started amid euphoria but is ending with his popularity at record lows.
Blair went to his constituency of Sedgefield, which he has represented since 1983 to make a long awaited resignation announcement, which comes just over a week after Blair marked 10 years as British prime minister.
In a week in which what many see as Blair’s greatest achievement come to fruition -- power-sharing in Northern Ireland -- an ICM poll for The Guardian on 10 May suggested Blair’s own ratings were still high among Labour voters.
Some 80% of the party he has led since 1994 say he was good for the country while among voters as a whole, the figure stands at 44% -- well ahead of Labour’s current position in the polls.
Blair originally promised to serve a full third term of office, which would have kept him in office to 2010 at the latest, but not fight for a fourth, straight term of office.
But after a mini “coup” by some Labour lawmakers last September, allegedly orchestrated by Brown, Blair was forced to say he would step down by September this year.
Brown, 56, who shared an office with Blair when they were first elected to parliament in 1983 and who jointly reformed Labour, is a virtual certainty to become his successor.
Senior cabinet-level colleagues, including Home Secretary John Reid and the much-fancied Environment Secretary David Miliband, have ruled out standing, leaving only two token challengers from the left wing of the party.
But they are unlikely to present a serious challenge and may not acquire the necessary 44 signatures each to have their names put on the leadership election ballot.
Under the British system, the leader of the biggest party in parliament automatically becomes prime minister. Blair is expected to endorse Brown publicly as his successor for the first time, although observers believe he could delay this until Friday.
The pair’s relationship has soured over the years, particularly over Brown’s perception that Blair repeatedly reneged on a 1994 deal to hand over the reins of power to him after two terms of office.
Blair will remain in office as Labour leader and prime minister as well as a lawmaker during the election campaign, results of which are expected by the end of the month.
He is due at the Group of Eight meeting in Germany and the European leaders summit in June and is expected to travel widely, including to France, the United States and Africa.
Speculation is mounting as to his future plans. His friend and election agent John Burton told the BBC Thursday: “Personally I would like to see him involved with president Bill Clinton in Africa.
“It’s close to his heart, he’s concerned about child poverty and I think Clinton and Blair working together, two great world statesmen, will be a force to be reckoned with.”
Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock paid tribute to Blair as he prepared to make his announcement.
“The one word that has to be associated with Tony is ‘winner’,” he told BBC radio.
“A winner also in the way in which over 10 years the government which he has led has produced conditions in which people expect stable affluence. That is unprecedented,” he added.