May 6 marked British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 50th birthday—an occasion for the press to praise his maturing leadership and to note that he’s showing his age. Several papers provided photo montages to compare and contrast the “cherubic looks” of the youthful Blair with the “older, greyer, gaunt” prime minister of today. The Guardian offered a gallery of photos showing Blair’s transformation from cheeky schoolboy to presidential pal, and a scary simulation of what the prime minister might look like as the “grand old man of British politics” in 17 years’ time. The Daily Telegraph, a traditional foe of Blair’s Labor Party, “declare[d] a temporary armistice” and offered a list of “50 good things about the man”—though most of the praise-worthy items were along the lines of “Speaks tolerable French,” “Plays tennis well,” or “Excellent manners.”
The Independent said that after six years in power, “Tony Blair is still eight years younger than the average age at which 20th-century prime ministers took office.” Although many members of his Labor Party still bitterly oppose his position on Operation Iraqi Freedom, “he is in a stronger position than any of his Labour predecessors,” and “the next general election promises to be as one-sided an affair as the military engagement in Iraq.”
The Scotsman observed that Blair spent much of the day in Dublin: “It is characteristic of Mr Blair’s second-term style that this personal milestone should find him, not just at work, but out of the country and on sensitive diplomatic ground.” The editorial said the mature Blair has “dropped the quest to be all things to all men. Middle age has cured him of the yearning to be liked.” The Times defended the peripatetic prime minister, noting, “[R]ealistically, it is hardly surprising that the wider world has come to dominate his agenda. Among the global players, he has served in office for longer than all but the opportunistic Jacques Chirac.” The editorial observed that while Blair and President Bush pursue very different domestic agendas, each appreciates the other’s reliability: “It reflects an approach that has served the Prime Minister to the age of 50 well: defy the excesses of ideology, follow the positives of the practical.”
A commentator in the Daily Mirror—a paper that spent most of the year lambasting Blair for acting like Bush’s “poodle”—expressed respect for the prime minister’s growing statesmanship: “I’ve detested his cronyism, spin-doctoring, naive faith in focus-group politics and nannying policies. So until this year, I was prepared to believe the Prime Minister was merely a package—so successfully marketed by New Labour he led the party to two election victories. I was wrong. History will remember Tony Blair as his own man whose steel was forged by war, who faced down fierce opposition from his own party knowing that he must stand or fall by his convictions.” Elsewhere, the paper reported that bookmakers Ladbrokes are offering odds of 6-1 that Blair will be prime minister for longer than Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years.
France’s Le Figaro reported that President Chirac sent six bottles of vintage Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a crystal decanter to his colleague across the English Channel. The attached note, which addressed Blair in the familiar “tu” form rather than the more formal “vous,” said: “Knowing how much you love visiting France, it is my pleasure to offer you a gift that illustrates the qualities of the earth of our country, which you know so well. … I add the expression of my personal regard and my loyal friendship.” The Times noted that British government regulations mean the prime minister will have to pay up to $200 per bottle if he wants to drink the wine.