British Press Eager to See Off Lame Duck PM Blair

As we approach the end of April, the main question posed in British newspapers seems to be: "Will he? Won't he? And when will it happen?"

The subject of all this feverish speculation?

Not the impending deployment of Britain's Prince Harry to Iraq but British Prime Minister Tony Blair's expected resignation. It has London's newspaper editors all worked up.

Ever since Blair announced on Sept. 30, 2004, that he would not seek to lead his Labor Party into another national election, journalists have been desperate to predict his date of departure.

This week alone has seen the mention of two different prospective dates -- May 5 or even as early as May 1.

Why the hurry to see off the prime minister? According to veteran columnist Simon Jenkins, "after 10 years, it's quite an event to see a prime minister step down."

But headlines like "Blair urged to quit early as Scottish poll disaster looms" and "Blair's legacy will be a divided kingdom" suggest that the excitement surrounding his resignation isn't entirely friendly.

Friday, both the conservative broadsheet The Daily Telegraph and the right-leaning tabloid, The Daily Express, reported that Blair was likely to announce his resignation on Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of his election as prime minister.

With the Labor Party expected to do badly in upcoming local elections in Scotland, England and Wales, such an announcement would -- it is believed -- deflect attention from poor polling results, possibly the worst in 20 years.

Even Blair's supporters have told The Daily Telegraph that the prime minister is now so unpopular in the country that his resignation could actually improve Labor's election prospects.

But, much as some in the Labor Party might want this to be the case, with Blair himself acknowledging his role as a liability in Thursday's elections, the prime minister's office does not agree.

Friday morning, Blair's spokesperson had only "one word for the stories: wrong. The stories this morning are wrong." As for Blair, he told reporters not to "hold your breath on that story."

The antipathy of right-leaning newspapers like The Daily Telegraph toward a Labor prime minister is, to a degree, traditional.

But Blair's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his friendship with President Bush has alienated the left-leaning media too.

The leftwing newspaper The Guardian has even installed a "counter" on its politics Web site, indicating the number of days since the prime minister announced his plan to resign. It's 940, in case you were wondering.

That said, journalists are not the only ones waiting with bated breath for the elusive announcement.

A recent opinion poll, conducted on behalf of the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World, found that 42 percent of those polled wanted Blair to step down now. Only 21 percent wanted the prime minister to lead the party through another national election.

Compare this with his record 67 percent approval rating in October 1997, and a sharp drop in the British public's opinion of Blair is unmistakable.

As Thomas Kielinger, the U.K. correspondent for the German national newspaper, Die Welt, observed in an article "the British people are tired of their prime minister."

That fact is not lost on Blair either, who recently appealed to Scottish voters to resist the urge to give him "a kicking one last time on the way out the door."

The trouble is, as Simon Jenkins pointed out to, "all this vague talk, with no end date in sight means that there is now a hurry to get him out. I think he quite regrets making the initial announcement, but the general feeling now is that he has overstayed his welcome."

And now, Blair's insistence to keep everyone guessing will likely result in his "leaving on a low, with an unresolved war in Iraq, an embarrassing cash for honors investigation under way at home, and a very skeptical public," according to Jenkins.

What the prime minister makes of all the hoopla surrounding his future is anyone's guess, but one could wager that he now wishes he had paid some attention to the old chestnut -- quit while you are ahead!