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Tony Blair left Gleneagles on Friday night at the end of the most dramatic week in his eight-year premiership. For once, that adjective really is justified. So much of Mr Blair’s time at Number 10 Downing Street has been infused with drama and tension – above all, in the periodbefore and after the Iraq war. So many Blair weeks have been headlined “the most dramatic”, “the most dangerous”, “the most perilous”.
But this week, Britain’s prime minister rode a political and emotional rollercoaster that stands alongside nothing else he has had to deal with. On Wednesday he revelled in the elation of London’s victory in the 2012 Olympic bid. On Thursday, he faced the full horror of the London bombings. Both events were played out against the backdrop of the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles, where world leaders sought to alleviate the plight of the world’s poor.
Mr Blair has long been defined by his powerful moral sensibility. Returning to Downing Street on Friday, his private thoughts will have been firmly focused on the immorality of the London bombings and how the terrorism can be stopped.
But across the political spectrum, many will reflect on what the last few days mean for him personally. There are dangers for Mr Blair now – not least the risk that the bombings will revive anger in Britain over his decision to back the Iraq war. But the overwhelming judgment across the political world will be generous.
Back In May, in spite of winning a third election victory, Mr Blair seemed to be in the evening of his premiership. His Commons majority had been slashed. He had been vilified over the Iraq war in the election campaign. He was under mounting pressure to fulfil his pledge to stand down before Britain next went to the polls.
But the opening two months of thishis third term in power have given him a real mission. He has the gravity to face down the new terror threat.in Britain. He has shown the enthusiasm to help secure London’s Olympic bid. After the European constitution’s collapse, he is leading the debate on Europe’s economic future. His pledge to serve a full third term in office – – staying to 2008 or beyond – is now seriously credible.
Three things have been strikingabout Mr Blair this week, reminded us of why he remains one of the world’s most arresting figures. on the international stage.
First, there is the range of his register as a political performer. On Wednesday, the prime minisuer he grasped the excitement of London’s Olympic victory with exactly the right tone. He expressed an almost boyish jubilation at London’s victory over Paris – but one that was carefully contained so as not to humiliate Jacques Chirac, the French president.
The next day, After the London bombings, he again found the correct response. his condemnation of terror was grim and powerful. But it was fused with a message that Britons must distinguish Islamist terrorists from the broad mass of decent and law-abiding Muslims.
The Second striking quality we have seen this week is his ability to position himself in the right position strategically. Ever since September 11, he has given his government a tough image, in the fight against terrorism, firmly advocating tough anti-terror laws and identity cards. Libertarians have assailed him with the argument that the terror threat is exaggerated. This week, Mr Blair found himself on the right side of the argument.
That strategic vision mixes with a third quality: an instinct to react quickly when events change, to take a risk. On the London Olympic bid, Mr Blair gambled, flying to Singapore to lobby the International Olympic Committee when many in his shoes would have feared emerging a loser. And Then, after the bombings, he flew straight to London from Gleneagles. to take a grip of the situation.The quickinstinctive reaction will evoke parallels with how, after – in the aftermath of the New York and Madrid attacks, others faltered.
None of this, of course, suggests Mr Blair is in for an easy ride. He knows better than most how events can suddenly go against him. And on several fronts, there will be big challenges.
First, there is the fear that the bombings will trigger a backlash in Britain over his the prime minister's backing for the Iraq war. George Galloway, the anti-war MP, the leading maverick of British politics,was quick to jump on the argument, this week, warning that the bombings meant the UK had “paid the price for the war”. That argument may gain ground if the attacks continue.
There is another big challenge. The bombings came just as Mr Blair was beginning to get the US and Europe to put their differences over Iraq aside and co-operate on a benign agenda. for the world. At the G8 yesterday, the US and Europe came together to tackle climate change, Africa and the Middle East. The danger for Mr Blair is that modest but dignified transatlantic co-operation on the world’s problems will be swamped by a new escalation in the war on terror.
There is one more to add. to the list. Mr Blair’s political momentum may ultimately rest more on events at home, with the need to press ahead with reforms of Britain’s state secondary education system, its pensions and social security structures. These UK issues rarely make headlines in the world’s press. But the danger is that, as he fends off epic challenges on the world stage – the Olympics, the war on terror, the need to reform Europe – he will lose focus on the core domestic agenda. , the one that actually changes people's lives back home.
But at the end of this week – of all weeks – political pundits should beware of predicting more than a few hours into the future. Better, perhaps, to reflect on where things stand now. Two months ago, Tony Blair looked close to being finished politically. Today, he is once again becoming the master of his fate.
James Blitz is the FT’s political editor