Going............ Going ...................... Not Gone?
And Now, Adieu
Britain's longest-running political drama is finally coming to an end. Blair is dead. Long live Blairism.
By Stryker McGuire
Sept. 18, 2006 issue - The weather was fine during his beach vacation in Barbados toward the end of August. But Tony Blair returned to a political hurricane in London. The cause of the storm: his handling of the summer's Israel-Lebanon war. The prime minister parroted Washington's pro-Israeli line. Following George W. Bush's lead, he hesitated to call for an immediate ceasefire. Furious at what they saw as another instance of kowtowing to America, scores of M.P.s were lying in wait. Two years ago Blair had promised to serve a third term and no more. He was only 15 months into it—but this so-called angry brigade decided his time was up.
Blair suspected a trap and drew a line in the sand. On Aug. 31 he invited The Times of London in for an interview. He refused repeatedly—"at least eight times," according to the paper—to say when he would step down. He told Labour Party leaders to "stop obsessing," and let his frustration show. "Look, what is the difficulty here? ... If you start laying down timetables, then what you do is you just provide for another endless bout of speculation, and the authority of the prime minister's position becomes difficult in those circumstances." During the interview, Blair sipped tea from a mug labeled ANTHONY and bearing the motto of a person so named: YOU'RE A MAN WHO'S IN CHARGE; OTHERS FOLLOW YOUR LEAD.
Not anymore. Over the following week Blair saw his once famously disciplined Labour Party descend into civil war. In the end, Blair was a defeated man. Last Thursday he interrupted a visit to a London school to speak to reporters. Where once he would have slapped down his opponents, he was now contrite. This, he said, "has not been our finest hour." Having said he wouldn't lay down a timetable, he did: he'd be gone in 12 months. "So as I say," he continued, "it has been a somewhat difficult week, but it's time now to move on."
How? Seven days in September changed everything for Blair. When Parliament goes back into session, he will face a blood-scenting rebellion that could stall, stop or kill the initiatives Blair hopes will crown his final months in office and help shape his legacy. Ever since the summer of 2003, when the occupation of Iraq started spinning out of control, Blair has been in steady decline. Last week, his 10th year in office, the sun effectively set on his government. The 53-year-old prime minister may be able to hang on into next year. But "even if he lingers that long," Matthew d'Ancona, editor of The Spectator magazine, wrote last week, "he will be a political wraith, barely in office and certainly not in power." On the magazine's cover, a cartoon depicted Blair as Margaret Thatcher, hounded out of office by her Conservative Party in 1990.
It's tempting to see in this tragedy a political tale of broader sweep. Surely this is Old Labour's revenge against Blair, a party ridding itself at last of a foreign substance. It's true that Blair and Labour have never been an easy fit. Boarding-school upbringing. A father who dreamed of becoming a Conservative M.P. And his politics: there's probably not a single Labour M.P. to his right on the political spectrum. The Labour Party, in this telling, was seduced by Blair's electability, by the fact that he would broaden Labour's appeal to capture the holy grail of postmodern British politics: Middle England. Blair got Labour back into government after 18 years. Now the party was rejecting him and his centrist values.
But it's not quite so simple. Blair's fall, in fact, is far more personal. For the angry squad, the object was to get rid of the prime minister who has seemed to be at Bush's beck and call ever since 9/11 and who took Britain to war in Iraq behind the United States. They number 80 or so of 353 Labour M.P.s. But though they succeeded in causing a furor last week, they're also something of a distraction. More important is that many more members of the party, most longtime loyalists, have come to believe that Blair has, as the Brits say, passed his sell-by date. The problem is not the overall direction of the New Labour agenda, which Blair pursued in partnership with his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The greater concern is the effect of Blair's decline on the party's popular appeal. Post-Iraq, more and more Labourites have grown concerned about how they will fare in regional and local elections next year, not to mention the next general election, expected in 2009 at the latest.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has been gathering strength under its telegenic 39-year-old leader, David Cameron. Polls show the Tories running ahead by five points or more. Less remarked upon, but even direr, is the collapse of Labour's pull in bellwether London, where one recent poll puts the opposition ahead by nine points. It's no coincidence that M.P.s in vulnerable constituencies are turning against Blair. Indeed, his opposition now comes from all directions, not just a leftwing fringe of anti-warriors and Old Labour diehards.
There's yet another dimension to Blair's downfall—one that was decisive last week. That's Gordon Brown, his presumptive heir. When Blair's political enemies went on the warpath, he could have stopped them "with a click of his fingers," as former Home secretary Charles Clarke put it. Untainted by the Iraq war, with good lines into the party's left wing, he could have quelled the mutiny but instead lay low. "Most of us have looked on aghast," said John McDonnell, a left-wing Labour M.P. who's no friend of either man. "It's almost been like an episode of 'The Sopranos'."
Indeed, Brown may have done himself more long-term harm than good with his maneuvering. He finally met with Blair last Wednesday, for a total of three and a half hours. Their discussion gravitated to the question that has poisoned their relationship for much of their time in government: when would Blair make good on his promise to turn power over to Brown, as Brown had given way for Blair when the party leadership opened up in 1994? This time, the talks were particularly rancorous. Blair and Brown shouted at each other, according to one report, with Blair at one point accusing Brown of "blackmail''—demanding concessions on succession in exchange for calming the party mutiny. Brown left with less than he had asked for, but Blair could barely contain his fury. When he took a call from an old friend that night, he exploded, "Where did [Brown] get this mendacity from?''
Blair and Brown managed to agree on something: the prime minister would outline a timetable for his departure; the chancellor would make a show of loyalty. Up in Scotland, the chancellor spoke: "I want to make it absolutely clear that when I met the prime minister yesterday, I said to him—as I've said on many occasions and I repeat today—it is for him to make the decision.'' Yet the most lasting image from Thursday was a photo on several front pages: Brown wears a big, satisfied smile as his chauffeured car leaves Downing Street after his talks with Blair. It left little to the imagination. "Riding high,'' said the caption in the Financial Times.
There are signs that voters have grown tired of Labour's long-running soap opera—and that Brown, in office for as long as Blair, may now be tainted goods as well. In a Daily Telegraph poll, only 20 percent of those surveyed thought he would make "a better prime minister'' than Blair. Many senior Labour figures see him as Blair's malevolent, smiling executioner. Given his behavior last week, said Clarke, the chancellor must now "prove his fitness'' to be prime minister. Others were worried that with Blair debilitated, Brown would have a virtual veto power over Blair's legislative "legacy agenda'' designed to broaden and cement his health and education reforms, thereby frustrating the prime minister's final days and months in office. "Everyone's lost,'' the friend who spoke to Blair by phone told NEWSWEEK. "This is the week New Labour started to die.''
That seems an overstatement. As wounded as Blair and Brown may be, a new generation of thirty- and fortysomething Labour M.P.s is coming of age. Blairite or Brownite, they are all modernizers; for them, there's no turning back. New Labour's founders may have lost their appeal, but New Labour hasn't. There may be battles within Labour over the extent to which private enterprise should be involved in public services, but it's Blair who's fading fast, not the New Labour project that he (and Brown) championed.
Labour's problem in the short term is that it's weakened at a time when it suddenly has competition again from the Tories, finally recovering from their epic defeat in 1997. Cameron was one of the few politicians in Westminster left smiling after Blair and Brown finished with each other last week. He popped up to say the government was "in meltdown,'' then dropped out of sight. He didn't say much else. He didn't have to.
With Karla Adam and Rebecca Hall
Going............ Going ...................... Not Gone?
"Some have learnt many Tricks of sly Evasion, Instead of Truth they use Equivocation, And eke it out with mental Reservation, Which is to good Men an Abomination."
I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.
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