In early 1999, Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party (and since then, as Lord Ashdown, Europe’s envoy in Bosnia), was found with a woman not his wife and forced to resign his post. In his diaries, he describes calling on Prime Minister Tony Blair to inform him in advance of his intention to quit:
“Blair said: ‘Going is the most difficult thing to do in politics. Too many people stay for too long. I would rather stop when people said, “Why is he going?” than when they said, “Why isn’t he going?” Or, even worse, “When is he going?” I hope I will be able to do it the same way.’”
This leaves us with an enduring mystery. Britain’s most adept and skillful politician has evidently known for years exactly what not to do about arranging his departure, and yet he has chosen to ignore his own advice.
The mystery deepens when we recall that this consideration has been a part of Blair’s calculations ever since he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. At a dinner in a London restaurant named Granita, in what has since become the best-known coffee-stage chat in British history, Blair made a proposal to Gordon Brown, his rival for the leadership. That proposal fell in two parts. He, Blair, was demonstrably more “electable,” and should lead Labour in deposing the ramshackle Tory regime of John Major. Then, with Labour in power, Brown could expect in due time to receive the mantle. On this condition, Brown agreed to give Blair a clear run.