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What next for Tony Blair?

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- "It's hard to let go," Tony Blair admitted in an emotional speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, acknowledging it would be the last time he addressed his political powerbase as British Prime Minister.

Faced with growing discontent with his leadership and under pressure to make good on his long-standing promise to cede power to his chancellor, Gordon Brown, Blair admitted earlier this month he would quit within 12 months, though refusing to reveal the exact date or details of his departure.

Blair has dominated the British political landscape for more than a decade, first as a dynamic young opposition leader and then through nine years in government. But now he faces the question all successful politicians dread: what will I do next?

Like Bill Clinton, Blair belonged to the fresh-faced 40-something generation elected in the 1990s as voters tired of seeing power concentrated in the hands of elderly politicians.

But whereas prime ministers and presidents could once expect to continue well beyond retirement age before slipping into the political twilight, Blair will likely be just 54 when he quits as Prime Minister --- and it's hard to imagine him mowing the lawn for the next 30-odd years.

Nor is Blair financially secure enough to think about putting his feet up just yet. Unlike retiring sports stars, those other public figures faced with filling their time from an early age, Blair doesn't have millions in the bank.

In fact the next few years are likely to be the most lucrative of his career -- and the Blairs already have a large mortgage secured against future earnings to pay off.

"The Blairs like a pretty expensive lifestyle," said CNN Political Editor Robin Oakley. "Look at all the holidays they take -- that suggests to me he'd be looking to earn a bit of money."

So what is next for Blair? It is hard to imagine him going back to his "day job" as a lawyer. Traditionally British prime ministers have retired to the comfortable parliamentary backbenches but Blair has already announced he will also step down as an MP at the next election.

One job with which he has been linked is the post of United Nations secretary general, from which Kofi Annan is due to step down at the end of the year.

However, the obstacles to Blair de-camping to the U.N. appear insurmountable. His appointment would break with the organization's existing structure, which rotates the presidency between continents (with Asia next in the cycle) and denies the top job to any nation with a permanent place on the Security Council.

Another role Blair may covet in idle moments is the presidency of the EU. But the collapse last year of efforts to force through a constitution may have thwarted that ambition too, with the presidency likely to remain a six-month rotating post for the foreseeable future.

But Oakley says Blair would have to overcome another obstacle: "He hasn't got a hope of getting a major EU post after what happened with the Iraq war. He is seen as being far too much in the U.S. camp."

Still, there are a few staples that Blair, like any retiring politician in need of lucrative employment, can rely on.

His memoirs will inevitably spark a bidding war between publishers, although one former official recently told The Guardian newspaper that books were "not his thing."

"He doesn't read them," said the anonymous source. "He swears to me that he's not going to write a book; he'd rather talk."

Even if Blair sticks to talking he is likely to pull in around $100,000 for an evening's work on the U.S lecture circuit.

"He is an electrifying speaker," said Oakley. "He really can play an audience so there will be rich pickings for him, especially in the U.S., where probably Margaret Thatcher is the only other British prime minister who has been so popular, because Blair is seen as a loyal ally."

Another lucrative earner, suggests Oakley, could be a place on the board of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. media organization, which earlier this year gave ousted Spanish prime minister Jose Marie Aznar just such a role.

It is hard not to think that Blair is setting his sights higher, however. Just as Clinton forged the way for Blair's political career, so in retirement he may take a similar path to the former U.S. president.

Between playing golf, writing his mammoth autobiography and enduring various heart scares, Clinton set up the Clinton Foundation, a charitable initiative that has enabled him to roam the world as a global spokesman for good causes.

"What you might see is something of the sort of Jimmy Carter roving ambassador role, helping out in particular situations," said Oakley.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Blair get involved in some sort of continuing Middle Eastern peace initiative. There is no doubting his commitment to that cause."

But there's also one other option that Blair, described Wednesday in The Times newspaper as a "dazzling showman," could perhaps be secretly considering.

When he left the stage Tuesday to the sound of T-Rex's "Get It On," Blair must have been taken back to his student days when he fronted a rock band called "Ugly Rumours."

With Blair's early inspiration Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones still going strong well into their sixties, perhaps it's time for a Rumours revival -- with Bill on sax.

Tony Blair, a "dazzling showman," with wife Cherie following his Labour Party Conference speech on Tuesday.


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