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Between business & baby

Mr. Blair is a politician to his fingertips and his decision on whether to take paternity leave could well hinge on how bad the reaction is to the results of the London mayoral election, writes THOMAS ABRAHAM.

TWO EVENTS will dominate the British media in May: the birth of the Blair baby, and the election of London's first Mayor. The first will be greeted with a wave of positive publicity for the British Prime Minister. He is expected to become a father for the fourth time some time in early May, and the newspapers and television news bulletins will be full of nothing else for some weeks after the event.

The other event, the mayoral election on May 4, is equally certain to generate an avalanche of unfavourable headlines for the Prime Minister. The Labour party's candidate for this high profile post, Mr. Frank Dobson, was handpicked by Mr. Blair. But the opinion polls show that he has little chance of winning. Instead, the clear favourite is Mr. Ken Livingstone, a Labour party rebel who is standing as an independent candidate. Mr. Blair and the party machinery did everything possible to block Mr. Livingstone from standing, even though he is clearly the most popular choice among Londoners. This is because Mr. Livingstone, or ``Red Ken'', as he used to be known, had a radical left-wing past, and is still seen as a left-winger, even though on most issues there is little to distinguish his views from that of the party leadership. When he did not get the party nomination to stand for Mayor, Mr. Livingstone announced he was going to stand as an independent, and now looks set to win. His victory will be a severe political embarrassment for Mr. Blair, and will call into question both the Prime Minister's political judgment, as well as his control over his party.

Mr. Blair's political strategists will no doubt be counting on the positive publicity generated by the new arrival at No. 10, Downing Street, to drown out the embarrassment caused by the mayoral election. The entourage around Mr. Blair, led by his all- powerful press secretary, Mr. Alistair Campbell, are masters at the art of diverting media attention away from political disasters by giving the press something else to write about. In this case, Mr. Blair's strategists will not even have to try very hard to divert media attention. There hasn't been a baby born to a serving Prime Minister in over a century, and the newspaper- reading public will clearly prefer to read about how the Prime Minister is coping with fatherhood, rather than about his political troubles.

In fact, a major focus of attention, once the other big questions that have been occupying the media's attention - whether it is going to be a boy or a girl, and what it is going to be called - have been resolved, will be whether Mr. Blair will be a modern father and take time off from running the country in order to help his wife look after the baby. His wife, Ms. Cherie Blair, a successful barrister who is on the way to becoming a judge, will have to cope with a temporary pause in her legal career. She has made it clear that though she does not expect her husband to take a career break, she hopes he will at least take a week or two of paternity leave. Mr. Blair has been uncharacteristically indecisive about whether he should do so or not. He has told interviewers that while his wife wanted him to take time off, he also had responsibilities towards the country.

The speculation on whether or not Mr. Blair will take paternity leave will probably be determined by its political impact, rather than on whether the country can afford it. The Prime Minister can, if he wants to, afford to take time off from work without Britain falling to pieces. Mr. Blair and his family regularly take a three-week summer holiday in Italy and France every year, leaving the Government in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. John Prescott. In this case, if Mr. Blair were to take paternity leave, it would not even be as if he were leaving the country, or even travelling far from his office. His official residence is just above his office, and Mr. Blair could clearly afford to take time off and still keep an eye on the Government.

Mr. Blair is a politician to his fingertips, and his decision on whether to take paternity leave could well hinge on how bad the reaction is to the results of the London mayoral election. If, as expected, the Labour candidate, Mr. Dobson, loses, Mr. Blair could well be under pressure to demonstrate that he is not losing his grip on the party and Government. A defeat for Mr. Dobson will also mark the first time since Mr. Blair came to power that an official party candidate has been defeated by a rebel. This could embolden others within the Labour party dissatisfied with Mr. Blair to mount their own challenges. Under these circumstances, Mr. Blair is unlikely to take time off to spend with his new baby. Instead, he is more likely to spend time addressing Labour activists across the country to stem any further rebellions.

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