Blair makes UK comeback to help Labour face poll
Sedgefield (England): Tony Blair entered Britain's close-fought election campaign on Tuesday, seeking to work his charm on voters tempted to desert the ruling Labour Party after 13 years.
The former prime minister led Labour to three electoral victories over the Conservatives from 1997. But after a decade as prime minister, he resigned in mid-term in 2007 to make way for Gordon Brown.
Brown is seeking to win an unprecedented fourth successive Labour term in office in an election expected on May 6.
Drafting in Blair's help is a risky strategy for Labour. The ex-prime minister is a charismatic campaigner, but many voters are still angry with him for leading Britain into war in Iraq.
Labour is trailing the Conservatives in the opinion polls although the gap has narrowed since January. Most polls suggest the result could be a "hung parliament" in which no party has an overall majority. This could allow Brown to stay in power.
Returning to the constituency of Sedgefield in northeastern England which he represented in parliament for 24 years, Blair praised Brown's handling of the economic crisis, hailing his "experience, judgment and boldness."
"It required leadership and Gordon Brown supplied it," Blair told enthusiastic party activists at the local Labour Club.
Blair and Brown had a uniquely close but fraught partnership at the top of British politics for a decade.
Brown was a powerful finance minister during Blair's 10 years at the helm, and it was an open secret that Blair had promised Brown he would hand over the reins at some point. This caused unending tension at the heart of government.
Brown, who has had a bumpy ride as prime minister, is now playing up his record on economic management, arguing that he took bold decisions during the 2008 credit crunch that averted a total collapse of the financial sector and the economy.
The Conservatives blame Brown for Britain's huge deficit and for leading it into recession.
Credited with broadening Labour's appeal beyond its traditional left-wing working class supporters, Blair is widely seen as a more accomplished public performer than Brown.
But Blair was deeply unpopular by the time he left office because of his decision to join the United States in invading Iraq based on the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist.
As his car pulled up outside the Labour Club in Sedgefield, Blair was met by a small crowd of protesters brandishing placards that read "Bliar, War Criminal."
Despite bitter memories of Iraq, Andrew Hawkins of pollsters ComRes said deploying Blair was a risk worth taking for Labour.
"Tony Blair had a little bit of electoral magic that Brown could do with trying to conjure up again," he told Reuters.
Hawkins said many of the people who had voted for Labour in the last three elections had done so because of Blair's centrist appeal, but they were now wavering. Blair could help bring those people back into the Labour fold, he said.