A Blair-sized hole

As the Prime Minister prepares to depart these shores with his interfaith foundation, it may not be

After the initial fanfare of his departure announcement, Tony Blair intends to slip away quietly. Having delivered devolved government in Northern Ireland, he hopes to spend much of Labour's seven-week leadership election abroad: a G8 summit here, a European Council meeting there, plus a long-planned trip to Africa. When he finally leaves office at the end of June, the man who has dominated the British scene for more than a decade will disappear from front-line domestic politics altogether. As one aide put it to me: "I can assure you that once he has gone, he will not be popping up to talk about city academies."

Blair was advised - long before the difficult night of election results on 3 May - that to stick around, Thatcher-style, would be undignified. He is unlikely to appear at this year's Labour party conference for fear of upstaging his suc cessor. He could even stand down as MP for Sedgefield, the constituency he has represented since 1983. One local man is confident that he has been promised the seat. Others are waiting in the wings.

He will then throw himself into the work of the Blair Foundation, his new organisation devoted to a better understanding of interfaith relations, and, with characteristic hubris, into resolving conflict around the world. For better or worse, when he goes he will leave behind him a large empty space in Britain's public life: a gaping Blair-shaped hole, where the most successful leader in Labour's history once stood.

By the end of the summer, Tony Blair will definitively be gone. Not without a certain relief, he will wash his hands of the country that once embraced him as a Messiah and has now rejected him as a false prophet. The religious resonances of the situation will not be lost on Blair as he plans his interfaith foundation and sets off to cure the ills of the world. Much has been made of the Messianic nature of his politics, but the establishment of the new organisation, likely to be headed by the No 10 deputy chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, takes his faith-based approach to a new level. It will also mark a significant break with Britain. It is not too dramatic to say that we may not see him on these shores for some time.

No longer able to pursue his policy of humanitarian intervention as Prime Minister, he intends to develop it as a full-blown philosophy. One former adviser with knowledge of the new project said: "Precisely because of Iraq, it will be all too easy to delegitimise intervention. He will be consciously trying to rehabilitate his version of a liberal foreign policy."

The last time I suggested that the nation will be bereft when Blair departs, I was taken to task by many on the left for voicing such a treacherous thought. Speaking on Newsnight just after his final conference speech in Manchester last autumn, I dared to suggest that the Prime Minister had been correct in much of his analysis of totalitarian Islamist ideology. Yet, to many of my comrades, he is beyond redemption. In descending order of seriousness he is: a war criminal for Iraq, corrupt (as suggested by the cash-for- honours affair), and a Tory because of his love of the free market and his instinct for privatisation. I soon realised that such is the hostility towards him in some quarters that it was unacceptable to suggest that he might have been right about anything at all.

Blair-less Britain

Such has been the speculation in recent weeks about his exact departure date and about a possible challenge to Gordon Brown, that few have taken the time to wonder what a Britain without Blair will look like.

It is quite possible that those of us who have been the most critical of Blair and Blairism will miss him the most when he is gone, because he provides such a ready and convenient target. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, he has become the living representation of everything to which the left has been historically opposed (empire, big business and conspicuous wealth). But Blair is a more complex figure than either his supporters or detractors would suggest.

Among the lists of quotations about the Blair legacy published in newspapers in recent days, two sharply contradictory judgements leapt out at me. The first was from General Sir Michael Rose on the case for war in Iraq: "If Blair had been a director of Enron, he would be doing 40 years," he said. The second was from David Blunkett, twice removed from high office, but a Blair loyalist to the last: "Today Britain is better-educated, healthier, safer, fairer and more prosperous than ten years ago." The strange thing about the legacy is that both statements are true. Iraq was a series of catastrophic errors and the full scale of the deception that led to war is still to be revealed (as Christopher Ames demonstrates on the previous page). But on the home front, it is difficult to argue that Britain was a better place during the stagnant years of the John Major premiership. Despite Blunkett's best hardline efforts, Britain is, in many ways, a more tolerant and liberal society than it was in 1997, but then, so it should be: we have moved on.

Until recently, Tony Blair had been in denial about his departure. Discussions about his future have been kept to his closest inner circle. Only in recent days has he been prepared to talk more openly about a timetable. To those in the deepest recesses of the bunker, this denial was a necessary strategy to allow the work of governing the country to continue. But such has been the uncertainty around Whitehall that only the residual momentum of the civil service machine has allowed the great ship of state to move on. Senior civil servants have been kept in the dark, looking over their shoulders and wondering who will survive the new regime. There is no grand plan within the departments of state for the Brown era.

Ironically, the one person with whom Blair has been in regular contact during these uncertain times is Brown himself. I am told the two men have been holding regular meetings in the past few weeks, just the two of them, behind closed doors. There is a certain ritual to this. As the Chancellor's flat is famously situated above No 10 rather than No 11 Downing Street, it is a simple matter for him to pop in to the Prime Minister's private office on his way to work. These morning meetings, though sometimes explosive in the past, have formed the basis of a new working relationship between them in the months since last autumn's attempted "coup". Rarely is anyone else present. It seems fitting that the strategy for bringing the Blair era to an end has been drawn up in private between these two, just as they conspired to create new Labour in their shared office all those years ago.

Honour is mine

The strategy that has emerged from those meetings is that Brown will embrace Blair's legacy very publicly, refusing to denigrate or distance himself from the ten-year record. The Chan cellor's gushing tribute in the Sun ("I am honoured to call Tony Blair my oldest friend in politics") was closely followed by Blair's near-endorsement of Brown as the next prime minister. Although the rival camps were kept in the dark about the article and endorsement, both provide clear signs of a coming together of the two men as the day of departure nears. This tactic may help draw the sting out of the Conservatives' plans.

At least for the short term, Brown will celebrate what he sees as the great achievements of the new Labour era. After all, he has as good a claim to a share of the credit as anyone. Blairism is as much the invention of Gordon Brown as it was of the man who lent it its name.

Brown without Blair is an untested quantity. One man who may yet feel the void left by the Prime Minister more than most is the Chancellor himself. One of the many excitements and intrigues of the new era will be to see how Brown copes without his early-morning chats with his neighbour. He will have to be careful. There are many people within the parliamentary party and the wider labour movement who are tired of being lectured by Blair that their values are not "fit for purpose" in the modern world. They are crying out for Brown to differentiate himself from his predecessor as part of the process of party renewal. Brown and those around him will be painfully aware that, on issues such as equality, personal well-being and the environment, new Labour has allowed itself to look distinctly old-fashioned.

Now that the waiting is almost over, the new prime minister should not make the mistake of continuing business as usual when he finally comes to power. A Brown-shaped peg will not plug a Blair-shaped hole.

ELECTION 2007 For Martin Bright's analysis of the crucial 3 May results in Scotland, Wales and England, plus reaction from around the UK, go to our Election 2007 blog at: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/election-2007