A Blair-Sized Hole: As the Prime Minister Prepares to Depart These Shores with His Interfaith Foundation, It May Not Be as Easy as Gordon Brown Might Think to Fill His Shoes. Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Reports

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After the initial fanfare of his departure announcement, Tony Blair intends to slip away quietly. Having delivered devolved government in Northern Ireland, he hopes to spend much of Labour's seven-week leadership election abroad: a G8 summit here, a European Council meeting there, plus a long-planned trip to Africa. When he finally leaves office at the end of June, the man who has dominated the British scene for more than a decade will disappear from front-line domestic politics altogether. As one aide put it to me: "I can assure you that once he has gone, he will not be popping up to talk about city academies."

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Blair was advised--long before the difficult night of election results on 3 May--that to stick around, Thatcher-style, would be undignified. He is unlikely to appear at this year's Labour party conference for fear of upstaging his successor. He could even stand down as MP for Sedgefield, the constituency he has represented since 1983. One local man is confident that he has been promised the seat. Others are waiting in the wings.

He will then throw himself into the work of the Blair Foundation, his new organisation devoted to a better understanding of interfaith relations, and, with characteristic hubris, into resolving conflict around the world. For better or worse, when he goes he will leave behind him a large empty space in Britain's public life: a gaping Blair-shaped hole, where the most successful leader in Labour's history once stood.

By the end of the summer, Tony Blair will definitively be gone. Not without a certain relief, he will wash his hands of the country that once embraced him as a Messiah and has now rejected him as a false prophet. The religious resonances of the situation will not be lost on Blair as he plans his interfaith foundation and sets off to cure the ills of the world. Much has been made of the Messianic nature of his politics, but the establishment of the new organisation, likely to be headed by the No 10 deputy chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, takes his faith-based approach to a new level. It will also mark a significant break with Britain. It is not too dramatic to say that we may not see him on these shores for some time.

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No longer able to pursue his policy of humanitarian intervention as Prime Minister, he intends to develop it as a full-blown philosophy. One former adviser with knowledge of the new project said: "Precisely because of Iraq, it will be all too easy to delegitimise intervention. He will be consciously trying to rehabilitate his version of a liberal foreign policy."

The last time I suggested that the nation will be bereft when Blair departs, I was taken to task by many on the left for voicing such a treacherous thought. Speaking on Newsnight just after his final conference speech in Manchester last autumn, I dared to suggest that the Prime Minister had been correct in much of his analysis of totalitarian Islamist ideology. Yet, to many of my comrades, he is beyond redemption. In descending order of seriousness he is: a war criminal for Iraq, corrupt (as suggested by the cash-for-honours affair), and a Tory because of his love of the free market and his instinct for privatisation. I soon realised that such is the hostility towards him in some quarters that it was unacceptable to suggest that he might have been right about anything at all.

Blair-less Britain

Such has been the speculation in recent weeks about his exact departure date and about a possible challenge to Gordon Brown, that few have taken the time to wonder what a Britain without Blair will look like.

It is quite possible that those of us who have been the most critical of Blair and Blairism will miss him the most when he is gone, because he provides such a ready and convenient target. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, he has become the living representation of everything to which the left has been historically opposed (empire, big business and conspicuous wealth). …