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The changing face of Blair
(Top) Tony Blair during a government function in March 1999 and (bottom) the British Prime Minister during a press conference in April 2003. (AP, Reuters)

London, May 6 (Reuters): Tony Blair still plays the electric guitar and relaxes to his son’s rock music.

But as he turned 50 today, there was no denying nearly six years in power and the arduous Iraq war had aged and transformed the fresh-faced politician who took Britain by storm when he led his Labour Party to power in 1997.

The change is most glaring in the Prime Minister’s features. Grey hairs and lines have superimposed a touch of weary gravitas to the boyish looks which so impressed supporters when he became the UK’s youngest Prime Minister since 1812.

Newspapers gleefully highlighted that aspect today with juxtaposed images of Blair at his worst during the Iraq crisis compared with his zestful best after the 1997 election win.

“You might think from the coverage I’m the first person in history to have reached 50,” Blair himself quipped in a speech. “It was rather disconcerting when I went into a meeting up north the other day and a woman stopped me and said: ‘That media, they’re always on about how awful you look’ and she looked at me a bit closely and said: ‘Actually it’s worse than I thought!’”

The changes, however, are more than skin-deep.

Most agree Blair, a father-of four and a committed Christian, has become more self-confident and conviction-led.

The Iraq war in particular, where he braved hostile domestic opinion, appeared finally to sink his previous image as a man obsessed with opinion polls and led by spin gurus.

“The novice of ‘97 has learned the job now,” The Guardian newspaper’s political editor Michael White wrote in one of a plethora of analyses of Blair’s political maturing process.

“He takes advice, chiefly within his own tight circle, but also takes his own decisions. He is harder, more confident of his power. He feels less need to hold ‘Cool Britannia’ parties,” he added, the latter a reference to Blair’s now-mocked campaign to revamp the national image for the new era he embodied.

Having been prepared to resign if a parliamentary vote on Iraq went against him, Blair survived but won himself little breathing space to enjoy his victory.

Britons gave a boost to the Opposition Conservative Party in last week’s local elections, and have turned their attention straight back to domestic issues like education, transport and health where there is widespread disquiet with Blair’s record. Rather than celebrating his birthday, Blair was spending the day preparing to face down an expected Labour revolt in a debate tomorrow over his hospital reforms, and travelling to Ireland to discuss the stymied Northern Ireland peace process.

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