Blair to stand down on June 27

Posted in Europe | 10-May-07 | Author: Matthew Tempest| Source: Guardian (UK)

· PM: I did what I thought was right
· 'May have been wrong' on Iraq
· Says UK is 'greatest country on earth'

Tony Blair today announced he was stepping down after 10 years as prime minister and 13 as Labour leader.

The prime minister told a crowd of supporters at Trimdon Labour club he would stand down as PM on June 27. He will tender his resignation to the Queen on that day.

In an emotional 17-minute speech, he said the judgment on his 10-year administration was "for you, the people, to make". Mr Blair paid special tribute to his wife and children "who never let me forget my failings".

But he concluded: "Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong - that's your call. But I did what I thought was right for our country.

"This country is a blessed country. The British are special. The world knows it, we know it, this is the greatest country on earth."

He dealt directly with Iraq, many people's perception as his ultimate legacy, saying: "The blowback since ... has been fierce, unrelenting and costly."

But he insisted: "The terrorists will never give up if we give up."

Mr Blair admitted that in May 1997, when Labour took over after 18 years of Tory rule, "expectations were too high."

But he added: "I would not want it any other way. I was, and remain, an optimist."

Pointing to Africa, climate change and globalisation, he declared Britain had changed under his 10-year leadership, saying: "Britain is not a follower, Britain is a leader."

He made no reference as to whether he would stay on as backbench MP for Sedgefield.

Mr Blair acknowledged he had been accused of "messianic zeal", but said as prime minister, over issues such as Sierra Leone, Kosovo and then Afghanistan and Iraq, you were "alone with your instinct".

Simultaneously, John Prescott announced in Hull he too would be stepping down, as Labour's deputy leader.

Earlier, the PM had confirmed to cabinet he would announce his plans to step down, joking it was "not quite a normal day".

The meeting ended with the entire cabinet "thumping" the table in appreciation, according to Mr Blair's official spokesman.

While Mr Blair flew to the north-east, the likely next prime minister was in the Commons, answering Treasury questions.

"There are, of course, 600,000 vacancies in the economy - there's one more today actually as a result of announcements that have just been made," Mr Brown quipped to laughter from all sides.

The two leftwing challengers for the Labour leadership, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, will announce this afternoon which, if either, of them has the required 44 nominations to mount a challenge.

Tributes have already started flowing in to the departing 54-year old prime minister, whose future plans are not yet clear.

Former US secretary of state Colin Powell said Mr Blair had "an enormous impact on world politics, and he certainly has had an enormous impact on the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain.

"He has been a friend, he has been steadfast in the face of negative public opinion, and in the face of crises he's stood steady. And we could always count on him."

Although he is expected to endorse Gordon Brown as his successor tomorrow, it is not even clear if Mr Blair will stay on as a backbench MP, or create a byelection in Sedgefield.

Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War coalition, said: "We cannot let this day pass without marking the deadly legacy of Tony Blair with the war in Iraq, but this is about the future as well."

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats demanded an immediate snap election to legitimise Mr Blair's successor.

The party leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, has tabled a Commons motion calling on the Queen to dissolve parliament immediately, since Mr Blair promised to serve a "full third term" in 2005.

Mr Brown, facing a financially straitened Labour party and poor polls, is highly unlikely to grant that request.

Mr Blair was unique among Labour leaders in winning three successive elections. Although announcing before the 2005 contest he would serve a "full third term", a mini-putsch by both Blairite and Brownite backbench MPs last autumn forced him to confirm he would stand down within a year.

The final act of that saga was enacted today.