Leading article: What a way to go

It was never meant to end like this. Tony Blair's dream, expressed in a staffer's cringe-making memo last year, of leaving office with applause ringing in his ears and "the crowds wanting more", vanished four years ago in the sands of Iraq. Yet the vindictive fantasy of some opponents of that war, of making him pay for that error of judgement, also disappeared when the British people delivered their verdict in the election of 2005. Constitutionally, whatever one thinks of our out-dated electoral system, Mr Blair was entitled to serve as Prime Minister until 2010. But such were the pressures on him within his own party that he was forced, last September, to put a 12-month limit on his time.

The drama being played out in the last few months of that long goodbye has plainly wounded Mr Blair's pride - "I am not going to beg for my character". Yet he is largely to blame for the tarnishing of his reputation by the cash-for-honours scandal. He was entitled to claim, as he did in his radio interview on Friday, that he should not be driven out of office by a police investigation that has not reached its conclusion. Indeed, he must think that he is forced to stay because to stand down now might look like an admission of guilt.

That is why it was unstatesmanlike of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, to call for him to go. Mr Cameron has tried to stand back from the loans-for-lordships furore, because the Conservatives are implicated in it too. But that left him demanding Mr Blair's resignation on the grounds that a short-term prime minister cannot deal with the country's long-term challenges. This is nonsense. Many countries work well with fixed terms for their elected leaders. It makes particularly little sense when all the big policy decisions are being thrashed out between Mr Blair and his likely successor.

The larger truth, however, is that Mr Blair's legacy has already been poisoned by his attempt, first reported by this newspaper, to ennoble four men who had secretly lent Labour £5m. Whether Mr Blair stands down this month or in June will not make any difference to the judgement of posterity on his 10 years - slightly more or slightly less - at No 10.

In that judgement, he will be given due credit for prosperity with social justice, for peace in Northern Ireland and for paving the way to global action on climate change. Before he overreached himself in Iraq, he had begun to advance a doctrine of liberal interventionism in Sierra Leone and Kosovo that was admirable. He still wins standing ovations, in Davos last weekend and in Telford on Thursday. But his legacy will for ever be marked by the disaster of Iraq and tainted, whether or not the law was actually broken, by the correlation between cash and peerages. What a way to go.