Ruling Britannia: Prime Minister Tony Blair
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SIMON MARKS: In the end, there were no surprises for Tony Blair on the road back to Number Ten Downing Street. The British prime minister returned to his official residence today having made history: He is the only leader of the Labour Party ever to win the guaranteed chance to serve a full second term in office, or as he puts it, to finish the job he’s begun.
TONY BLAIR: The policies and the foundations that we have laid over these past few years give us the ability now to complete the task that we set ourselves. And that task is governed by one simple principle, which is the principle this party today stands for. Do we want a society and a nation where not just a few people at the top, but every single person in our country gets the chance to succeed and make the most of their god-given abilities. (Cheers and applause)
SIMON MARKS: Thursday’s election changed virtually nothing in Britain. Across the country, the voters chose Labour by a wide margin, the party only losing a handful of seats in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the British parliament. When these benches are filled, Labour will still have a majority of around 167 seats, more than enough for Tony Blair to pursue his legislative agenda without any fear of being blocked. For Mr. Blair, maintaining one of the largest parliamentary majorities in British electoral history was a remarkable achievement that underscores the turnaround in Labour’s fortunes. A party that for the 20-year domination of Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives was widely considered unelectable by the British public has, under Mr. Blair’s leadership, become reelectable. Now trusted with overseeing the British recovery, he’s brought unemployment to record lows, lowered interest rates and managed one of the soundest economies in Europe. A triumph for Mr. Blair meant disaster for William Hague. The Conservative Party leader was roundly rejected by the electorate. Following their humiliation in the 1997 election, the conservatives failed to improve their historic low standing in the House of Commons. And in a reminder of how brutal electoral politics can be in Britain, by 8:00 this morning– before the country’s bacon and eggs were cold– Mr. Hague was gone.
WILLIAM HAGUE: I believe it’s vital that the party be given the chance to choose a leader who can build on my work, but also take new initiatives and hopefully command a larger personal following in the country. And I’ve therefore decided to step down as leader of the Conservative Party when a successor can be elected in the coming months.
SIMON MARKS: While Tony Blair can celebrate a remarkable victory here, his return to office did not occur by popular acclaim. Voter turnout here yesterday was just 59%. That’s the lowest level Britain has seen since World War I. Fewer than one British citizen in four actually voted for Mr. Blair yesterday, and the British election campaign revealed a significant level of public disquiet about Mr. Blair’s first term in office. That first term was dogged by a number of different problems: The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which left British agriculture reeling; public disquiet over the fate of Britain’s railroads, whose privatization Mr. Blair didn’t oppose; the scandal of the millennium dome, the monument to the new century that Britons didn’t visit and the government now can’t sell; and accusations that Mr. Blair was all spin and no substance, too stage managed and “presidential” for Britain.
WOMAN: All you do is walk around and… You don’t actually do anything to help anybody. (Yelling)
SIMON MARKS: On the campaign trail, some voters got close enough to Mr. Blair to tell him exactly what they thought about his handling of Britain’s much- treasured public services, like the socialized healthcare system, the National Health Service, which many Britons accuse Mr. Blair of allowing to fall apart.
WOMAN: There’s nothing to talk about because you still won’t do anything.
MICHAEL BRUNSON: Tony Blair, I think is saying to himself, “I’ve got this landslide, but it’s on such a low turnout.”
SIMON MARKS: Michael Brunson is the former political editor for “Independent Television News” of London.
MICHAEL BRUNSON: People are angry now, because Tony Blair came in essentially with a message which said, “I am going to make life better for everybody, but above all,” as he put it, “for the many, not the few.” And the many are still traveling to work in crowded trains. They’re still having to wait too long for their hospital appointments. The many feel that they are still getting a raw deal, and they have now put Tony Blair on notice. They’ve given him one more term, and they’re saying essentially to him, “you’ve got four more years, maybe five more years to get it right, but woe betide you if you don’t.”
SIMON MARKS: And Tony Blair today indicated that’s a message he’s received and understood — the man who introduced welfare reform and constitutional change to Britain and who deliberately took his party to the right in order to win mass appeal now responding to the appeal of the masses.
TONY BLAIR: So let us get to our work now. Realize that in the next few years those expectations are there. We have to meet them. We have to work patiently, clearly, calmly, with determination and vigor to serve the people of this country. It’s a privilege and an honor that they have bestowed upon us. Let us live up to it now.
SIMON MARKS: While many voters didn’t care for Tony Blair, they also didn’t warm to William Hague. The conservative party leader never managed to overcome the image of being a bit of a square.
SPOKESMAN: Former prime ministers…
SIMON MARKS: Criticized for his flat Yorkshire accent, portrayed in a Labour advertisement with Margaret Thatcher’s hairdo. Lady Thatcher’s appearance on the campaign trail only served to underscore the impression that Mr. Hague was doing her bidding, and the electorate never warmed to promises of tax cuts from a party often accused of destroying Britain’s public services. (Music playing) And in his campaign broadcasts– freely aired by the television networks here– Mr. Hague vowed to protect the British currency, the pound, against moves to introduce the common European currency, the euro. But with polls showing that the British public is becoming more open to the concept of the euro, and with Tony Blair now saying he might hold a referendum to decide whether Britain adopts it, the Conservatives’ harshly anti-Europe stance put them on the wrong side of public opinion.
MICHAEL BRUNSON: If they do remain an anti- Europe party, they’ve got to be a less strident anti-Europe party. They’ve got to be a party which says there are things that we don’t particularly like about Europe, but we are prepared to go along with it, to be part of the good things, if you like, and to try and restrain some of the things that we don’t like.
SIMON MARKS: And while the conservatives mull their future, Tony Blair must decide where to take his party next. Labour has already stolen so many traditionally conservative positions and middle-class voters that the days when it stood for unionized labor, unilateral nuclear disarmament and nationalized industries seem centuries away.