Tony Blair’s planned resignation as prime minister after ten years in power will remove the most dominant figure in British politics since Margaret Thatcher, but one whose popularity has been on the wane since the war in Iraq in 2003.
The first Labour leader to achieve two, then three consecutive election victories – in 1997, 2001 and 2005 – Mr Blair remade the political landscape, dragging his party to the political centre ground and, eventually, forcing the opposition Conservatives on to the same territory.
The Blairite political philosophy – once branded the “third way” – has defied simple definition. But in a decade in power, he practiced a free-market version of social democracy, with strong doses of 19th century English liberalism, such as an interventionist foreign policy under which he sent UK troops to fight in five wars.
New Labour’s mantra was economic dynamism and social justice. How much of both was achieved since 1997 is a matter for debate. But the twinning of the two objectives – irreconcilable in the UK for much of the post-war period unlike elsewhere in Europe – is now an incontrovertible tenet for all parties with a claim to power.
Mr Blair presided over 10 years of unbroken economic growth, although the credit is claimed by Gordon Brown, the chancellor and Mr Blair’s presumed successor.
Britain feels noticeably more affluent and in many ways more sophisticated than it did in 1997. Government has been devolved in Scotland and Wales. Peace has prevailed in Northern Ireland, with Mr Blair devoting more time to the province than any other prime minister in recent history.
Since 2000, the UK has seen the largest sustained increase in public spending since 1945, particularly on health, backed with substantial increases in taxation.
Public services have improved, although not to the extent to which their funding has increased.
Employment rules have been tightened with the introduction of a national minimum wage and new family-friendly flexible working rights for parents.
At the same time, Mr Blair essentially preserved Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of unfettered markets, loose labour laws and weak trade union powers.
Although he was often accused of having no grasp of history, Mr Blair was determined not to repeat the mistakes of past Labour governments and fall hostage to its left-leaning activists and trade union supporters.
Before he took the helm, Labour was still a traditional socialist party, committed to trade union power and punitive taxation.
One of his first acts after securing the Labour leadership in 1994 was to abandon the party’s commitment to state ownership of the economy.
By that point Labour had lost four general elections on the trot. Mr Blair grasped that to win and retain power, the party needed to piece together a broad electoral coalition, including swathes of middle class voters in southern and central England who had previously backed the Conservatives.
He adopted the language and some of the policies traditionally associated with the right. The aspirations of middle class families were put on a par with helping the poor.
Citizens’ rights were coupled with responsibilities. He talked tough on crime, anti-social behaviour and terrorism, introduced dozens of punitive new laws, dismissing arguments about the erosion of civil liberties.
To the anger of Labour traditionalists, Mr Blair adopted essentially Conservative ideas for for the reform of public services, but took them much further.
Schools and hospitals were subjected to market disciplines and forced to compete against each other for patients and pupils. Private healthcare providers were brought in to shake up the national health service while schools were freed from local government control.
Mr Blair’s allies hope that his greatest domestic legacy will be raising the quality and efficiency of state-funded health and education, ensuring they remain popular with the middle classses and therefore largely free to everyone, including the poor.
But his market-based reforms came late in his premiership, when his political capital had already been depleted, and doubts remain whether the reforms will survive a change of prime minister and a squeeze on funding from 2008.
Mr Blair’s enduring genius was to align himself with the political instincts of “middle England”. When voters have been asked to place him on a left-right scale, they on average have situated him almost exactly where they put themselves, in the very centre. Crucially, right-wing voters have perceived him as being slightly to the right of centre.
But Mr Blair’s fabled political antennae arguably failed him when it came to the biggest single decision of his premiership: joining the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The war has defined the latter half of Mr Blair’s premiership and may well dominate his political legacy. What critics call Britain’s biggest foreign policy blunder since the Suez crisis of 1956 destroyed his claim to leadership in Europe and sapped his authority at home.
Mr Blair’s opinion poll ratings sank at the time of the invasion and they have never recovered. It is hard to attribute this fall in favour simply to the war. After all, two years later Mr Blair won a third election victory, albeit against a weak Conservative opposition.
But the war and its aftermath came to represent a broader loss of public trust in Mr Blair, in his informal style of government and almost presidential powers. The favourable presentation of what turned out to be incorrect intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction confirmed to many voters the government’s reputation for putting spin over substance.
The war also triggered a sequence of events which fatally undermined Mr Blair’s authority. Fearing an electoral backlash in 2005, he made the mistake of pre-announcing his intention not to serve a full third-term as prime minister.
The announcement took the sting out of the Iraq war as an electoral issue, but set the clock ticking on Mr Blair’s premiership, depriving him of his powers of patronage and ironically, increasing tensions with Mr Brown.
Mr Blair was elected Labour party leader in 1994 after allegedly agreeing to make way for Mr Brown, his close political ally and subsequent bitter rival, if given a free run at the leadership. The terms of that deal and whether or not both men stuck by them has been the cause of rancour and distrust that has destabilised the government.
Mr Blair’s position was also weakened by a series of alleged scandals, most recently claims that his aides accepted donations and loans to the Labour party in return for peerages, or membership of the House of Lords.
These have been minor infractions by international standards. There has been no attempt at self-enrichment by the protagonists. But with Mr Blair becoming the first serving prime minister to be questioned by the police in a criminal investigation, they have left the government mired in accusations of sleaze, colouring the assessments of his achievements.
Mr Blair can draw comfort from the fact that his brand of centrist politics is still in tune with the public mood and that David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is so consciously following his example. The government is now settled on Mr Blair’s public service reform agenda. Even Mr Brown now seems solidly behind it.
As the historians look back on the Blair years, they will acknowledge that he changed the nation’s political argument. But for decades to come they will argue over whether he irrevocably changed the nation. And then there is Iraq, which even his closest allies concede may overshadow Mr Blair’s legacy.
“Like all great legacies,” said one colleague, “it will be a contested one.”