updated 7/7/2005 4:18:33 AM ET 2005-07-07T08:18:33

Two months ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair was a chastened man.

British voters had returned him to office for a third term, but with a sharply reduced majority in Parliament. Every day, newspapers raked over the unpopular Iraq war and the faulty intelligence Blair’s government used to justify British participation.

As he headed into a term he says will be his last, Blair seemed like a leader trapped in the past.

But on Wednesday, as a beaming Blair basked in London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics and prepared to host a summit of the world’s most powerful political club, the G-8, he was full of confidence and verve.

“It’s not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you,” said Blair after hearing the decision of the International Olympic Committee. “It’s a fantastic thing and I am absolutely thrilled.”

The Olympic boost could not have come at a better time for Blair.

A political legacy, beyond Iraq?
Britain’s yearlong leadership of the Group of Eight powers overlaps with its six-month presidency of the European Union, which began July 1. So until the end of the year Blair has the chance to put his stamp on the international agenda.

For the G-8, that means efforts to cement a debt and aid deal for Africa and coax action on global warming. For Europe, it means a chance to reform what Blair sees as a muddled bureaucracy and competition-stifling subsidies, especially for farmers.

A breakthrough on either score would offer Blair a political legacy beyond the messy, contested terrain of Iraq.

Overcoming U.S. resistance to his ambitious agenda on poverty and the environment would help show Blair’s doubters, who have dubbed him President Bush’s “poodle,” that he has an independent voice heard loudly in the White House.

Blair biographer John Rentoul said the combination of the Olympic victory and a G-8 focusing the world’s attention on Africa were “a triumph” for the prime minister.

“He’s achieved a lot — so much that he ought to resign at once if he wants to go out on a high note,” Rentoul said. “It’s all downhill from here.”

A breakthrough at the G-8 is far from certain. Blair’s EU presidency also will be fraught with risk, as he tries to steer a divided union uncertain of its future.

'Lame duck is flying again'
At the same time, many commentators believe Blair has been energized by the battle over the future of the EU and the challenge of his G-8 presidency.

“The lame duck is flying again,” said a headline in The Guardian newspaper last week.

John Curtice, a political analyst at Strathclyde University, said that by making himself a champion of aid to Africa, Blair has “managed to come up with a line on foreign affairs that fits in with people’s moral feelings.”

“The vaguely middle-class, socially concerned constituency, which protested against the war in Iraq, is now out on the streets saying, 'We back Blair,”’ Curtice said.

Slideshow: London 2012 It helps that Blair’s opponents, both at home and abroad, have suffered a run of setbacks.

Domestically, the main opposition Conservative Party is in the midst of its third leadership battle in four years after its third straight election defeat.

In Europe, French President Jacques Chirac, with whom Blair has clashed over farm subsidies and Britain’s hefty EU budget rebate, has been hit by French voters’ recent rejection of the proposed EU constitution.

Olympic achievement
London’s Olympic victory over favored Paris was yet another humiliation for Chirac.

Judges may have been influenced by Blair’s concerted charm offensive. Three days before the G-8 summit, he flew out to Singapore to court IOC officials in person.

“I think if Blair hadn’t come, this press conference would have been in French,” said Canadian IOC member Dick Pound.

Blair’s passion and personal charm, acknowledged even by his strongest opponents, have also won converts in the EU.

Blair, vilified by Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for refusing to give up the $5.5 billion EU rebate, won support from new member countries from eastern Europe with his attack on Franco-German dominance. An impassioned address to the European Parliament last month — in which he urged the union to “give ourselves a reality check, to receive the wake-up call” — won praise even from doubters.

At home, the Olympic triumph will help buy Blair a reprieve from a critical media. Domestic battles over public services are in a lull amid all the international diplomacy, and the British economy is strong — in contrast to France and Germany, which suffer double-digit unemployment.

But the stakes at this week’s G-8 summit are high. It’s unlikely Blair will emerge with everything he wants: a debt write-off and doubling of aid for Africa; a new trade deal for poor nations; and action on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The United States remains opposed to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming. Washington also opposes some of Britain’s aid proposals, notably the call for G-8 countries to increase foreign aid to the equivalent of 0.7 percent of national incomes by 2015.

British officials have sought to dampen expectations of a breakthrough, raised after the huge anti-poverty protests and Live 8 concerts on the weekend.

On Wednesday Blair was bullish. Agreement was far from certain, he said, but “you’ve got to be prepared to hold out for what’s right.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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