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Blair Forced to Retire, Brown Likely to Be Next British PM

By Alan Cowell
THE NEW YORK TIMES


LONDON

Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Thursday that he would leave office within the next 12 months, bending to pressure after an open rebellion in his own party.

His announcement opened a troubled final chapter in a remarkable three-term premiership in which he moved from absolute political dominance of a prosperous Britain to fighting off open mockery about his closeness to President Bush.

Mr. Blair earlier said he would not run for a fourth term. Thursday’s announcement narrows the timetable for his resignation. It means that, around or well before next summer, Mr. Blair will resign the leadership of the Labor Party and make way for Gordon Brown, his finance minister, to take over as prime minister. For much of this week, Britain has been gripped by the spectacle of a brutal, behind-the-scenes power struggle between the men over the timing of Mr. Blair’s departure.

“I think the precise timetable has to be left up to me and got to be done in a proper way,” Mr. Blair said.

Speaking an hour earlier, Mr. Brown said, “I want to make it absolutely clear today that when I met the prime minister yesterday, I said to him and I repeat today: It is for him to make the decision” on the timing of his departure.

For months the prime minister fought off calls to name a date for stepping down, despite the increasing fears that a delay would hurt his party in the next election and the growing unpopularity at home for his firm backing of American policy in Iraq and the Middle East.

It is not clear whether the political costs of allying Britain so closely to the United States would prompt Mr. Brown to change course, though his political allies have suggested that he is eager to bring home British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and would strike a more independent stance. Mr. Brown’s brief has been managing the British economy, not foreign policy.

For his part, Mr. Brown, less charismatic than Mr. Blair, has been a Labor Party stalwart throughout his political life, taking credit as finance minister for a remarkable era of economic growth.

His main contacts with American politicians have been with Treasury Department and banking officials on issues like reducing third-world debt and managing shocks to the global economy. Closer to home, in Europe, he has been more of a euro-skeptic than Mr. Blair, opposed to joining the euro single currency.

At the same time, he has tried to build an image as a champion of the poor.

Last April, he visited Africa — paying a call on Nelson Mandela and posing for photographs with children in shanty towns — apparently to soften his public persona as a dour and austere “Iron Chancellor,” a closet old-school socialist bent on taxing the middle classes to redistribute wealth.

The crisis this week has been building since the election two years ago, and sharpened over the summer when Mr. Blair rejected calls from Labor legislators to support a quick cease-fire in Lebanon, preferring to endorse American and Israeli policies.

Continuing political warfare could deepen Labor’s unpopularity in advance of regional elections next May. A full national vote, to decide which party would run the government, is scheduled for 2010 at the latest.