Blair touted as possible Middle East envoy

Tom Hundley
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LONDON - On his last day as prime minister, John Major said goodbye to queen and politics, and headed straight to a cricket match. Margaret Thatcher took a job as a consultant for a tobacco conglomerate and, in the eyes of her party, became the meddlesome backseat driver.

Now, with Tony Blair due to leave No. 10 Downing Street next week, Britons wonder how their relatively young and fit former prime minister will live out the rest of what has been an extraordinary public life.

One tantalizing possibility, though perhaps a longshot, emerged Wednesday with Bush administration sources saying that Blair is being considered for an assignment as special envoy for Palestinian governance and economic issues, reporting to the so-called Quartet overseeing Middle East peace work: The United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Since former World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn stepped aside as envoy for the Quartet in May 2006, the four powers have lacked an ambassador to work out the details to create an eventual Palestinian state. And given the violent division among Palestinians, the Bush administration sees a need for someone to assume that role.

Downing Street declined to comment on the reports while the White House and State Department brushed aside questions.

"I would remind you that the prime minister still does have a day job at the moment - he is prime minister of the U.K.," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the State Department. "Far be it from me to comment on what his future plans might be ... (but) I would expect that Prime Minister Blair certainly would have a variety of different options from which he could choose once he leaves office."

Other prime ministers certainly have made widely disparate choices for their post-political career. Major is the author of a new and widely acclaimed social history of cricket. He also is considered to be a role model for former prime ministers.

Two of his Tory predecessors, Thatcher and Edward Heath, are examples of "bad" former prime ministers, according to Kevin Theakston, a political scientist at Leeds University. Both were bitter about their loss of power and worked incessantly to undercut their successors.

"We've heard remarks - not directly from him, but from the No. 10 entourage - that `Tony doesn't want to be a backseat driver,''' said Theakston, who has studied the habits of former prime ministers.

"Just as John Major saw the negative impact that Thatcher and Heath had on the (Conservative) party, I don't really see Blair staying much involved in Labor politics or domestic British politics," he said.

After he vacates Downing Street, Blair remains a member of Parliament, representing his home district in northern England until the next election - unless he chooses to resign early. Blair has not yet announced a decision on this, but even if he keeps his seat in the Commons until the election, probably in 2009, aides say it is unlikely he will log much time on the back benches.

Nor is he likely to accept a title and promotion to the largely ceremonial House of Lords, as Baroness Thatcher did. The House of Lords, Blair once said, "is not my scene."

In an interview with writer Martin Amis published earlier this month, Blair acknowledged that moving out of the most powerful address in Britain will not be easy.

"When the day comes, I'll probably be clinging to the door knocker, but so far I think I can just ... let it go," he said.

At age 54, Blair is still young and clearly eager to stay busy. He has four children, the youngest of whom is 7 years old, and a significant pile of debts, owing mainly to the purchase of a $7.2 million Georgian townhouse on London's posh Connaught Square.

The mortgage payments on that and several other properties owned by Blair are close to $40,000 a month, according to public records. Blair's $120,000 salary as a member of Parliament and $187,000 prime minister's pension won't cover it.

This means he will have to make some money. His memoirs could fetch up to $8 million, according to press reports in Britain. But with the Labor Party still in power, and his successor Gordon Brown likely facing a tough election in 2009, this would hardly be the time for a tell-all account of Blair's often bitter rivalry with Brown.

He would command top fees on the lecture circuit, especially in the U.S. Well-remunerated seats on corporate boards and other business opportunities also beckon.

Major took a job as European chairman of the Washington-based Carlyle Group, the politically connected private equity firm. Thatcher, who was not known to be a smoker, collected millions as a consultant to Philip Morris, the tobacco giant.

Blair, who in a speech last week described the British media as a "feral beast" that "hunts in a pack," has reportedly been courted by the leader of the pack, Rupert Murdoch, to take an advisory position with the News Corp., flagship of Murdoch's sprawling media empire.

If the Middle East envoy position doesn't pan out, another possibility is a high-profile job with an international organization. The United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank have been mentioned. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that Blair would be a good candidate if the EU ever gets around to creating the position of a full-time president.

But Theakston notes that Britain's "semi-detached position with regard to Europe" makes Blair a problematic choice for any EU job, while his fateful entanglement with George Bush and the war in Iraq has damaged his credibility with many members of the U.N.

"I think for himself he would prefer more of a wide-ranging role ... something that would allow him the freedom to make all sorts of interventions on the big issues - poverty in Africa, the Middle East, climate change, the clash of civilizations," said Theakston.

To stay in the public eye, Blair needs some kind of platform, and aides have indicated that he is thinking about starting a non-profit foundation along the lines of those created by Thatcher and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The William J. Clinton Foundation, which focuses on health and poverty issues, is going strong, but funding for Thatcher's organization, dedicated to promoting her conservative ideals, pretty much dried up after she left public life. In 2005, the activities of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom were taken over by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Blair's inclination, according to British media reports, is to establish a quasi-religious foundation that would tackle big global issues but also promote interfaith dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

On Saturday, in his last major overseas visit as prime minister, Blair is scheduled to have an audience in Rome with Pope Benedict XVI. This has fueled weeks of speculation in the British media that soon after leaving office Blair, nominally an Anglican, will announce plans to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Blair's wife, Cherie, is a practicing Catholic, and as prime minister he frequently attended Catholic services.


(Staff writer Mark Silva of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.)

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