The “Tony Blair era” in British politics has been scheduled to end for the last two years, ever since the prime minister announced that he would not lead his New Labour government into the next election and a fourth term.
True, a firm date for Houdini’s last performance had not been fixed. Most of the supporting acts predicted it would take place about this time next year. Maybe he would stage a grand farewell high-wire defense of the Iraqi intervention at the annual Labour conference.
But one thing was certain — or rather two. Blair would hand over power to his long-term chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and it would be an orderly and even graceful transfer.
After the bloodletting of the past week in the Labour party — in which Blair was forced to promise an earlier departure by the coordinated resignations of “Brownite” supporters and the meltdown of his authority — neither of these predictions looks correct. Brown’s succession is no longer guaranteed, and any transfer of power is likely to be bitter, hard-fought, and bloody. And the root cause of this brutal and entertaining prospect is the Blair-Brown relationship.
Brown believes that a decade ago Blair promised to make way for him after two terms in return for Brown withdrawing from the Labour leadership election and throwing his support to his rival. This deal is known as the “Treaty of Granita” after the Islington restaurant where it was supposedly sealed. Ever since, Brown has been either waiting for the succession or brooding on the failure of Blair to deliver it on the promised schedule.
Both men now hate and distrust each other deeply. Brown feels that Blair has repeatedly tricked him so as to cling to office; Blair doubts that Brown has the right personal qualities to make a good prime minister and is plainly hoping against hope that someone other than Brown will emerge as his successor.
It is sometimes argued — I have argued it myself — that Blair is a New Labour reformer and Brown an Old Labour socialist. That was always exaggerated and is no longer true. Blair now takes credit for the redistributionist social policies pushed through the government by Brown — one story has Brown hearing a Blair speech listing his government’s progressive achievements and saying under his breath “he opposed that” after every item — and Brown now accepts the need for Blairite choice and variety in public services. This weekend Brown even endorsed Blair’s mantra about the need for close Anglo-American cooperation in foreign policy.
But the convergence of their political views has not made them any friendlier. If anything, it has removed the ideological camouflage concealing their mutual personal dislike. Last week that dislike became the central fact of British politics.
Brown inspired close supporters in government to resign — or failed to restrain them from resigning — in order to force Blair into announcing a firm date for his retirement. For two days the two factions shouted at each other in the Commons and over the airwaves. In a Downing Street encounter that was quickly reported all over London, Blair and Brown shouted at each other in person after doing so for years through intermediaries.
And then it all seemed to end suddenly in a victory for the chancellor. Brown was photographed grinning broadly as he was driven away from Downing Street. The next day Blair used a photo-opportunity at a London school to make a transparently bitter and reluctant announcement that he would resign some time in the next year and hand over power to Brown. The chancellor promptly praised the prime minister and said gracefully that the details of his going should be left to him. The prospect of an orderly and graceful transfer of power beckoned again.
It lasted less than a day. Though some Blairite loyalists had made their peace with Brown — one or two were among the resigners who sparked off the crisis — others were furious at his tactics and his apparent success. They made it known that they would support ABC — anyone but the chancellor — and insisted that the keys to Ten Downing Street had to be won in a contested election, not simply transferred to Brown on the basis of “Buggin’s turn.” Several possible rivals began to be talked about — the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, a relaxed and popular working-class success story, the Home Secretary, John Reid, the tough and competent hammer of the terrorists. Then over the weekend, Charles Clarke, a former Blairite minister now thought to be hostile to the prime minister, unexpectedly put the boot into Brown.
The chancellor, he said, was a “control freak.” He had “psychological issues.” His behavior over the previous week — especially, his smile after the clash with Blair — had been “absolutely stupid.” He lacked courage and the ability to take risks. Etc., etc., etc.
Brown came back smiling. In an unusually relaxed performance on television, he insisted he had no hard feelings — hey, he would offer Clarke a job when he became prime minister. He sketched out how a Brown government would be a tolerant and open administration drawing on the talents of able people across the political spectrum. And he generally dispelled the image of Gordon the Brooding Loony next door.
Ten Downing Street, however, refused to disavow Clarke’s attack. Brown’s opponents are beginning to organize. Blair is obviously planning to abandon his Houdini act in order to become the Grand Puppeteer of New Labour. Although everyone believes that Blair will depart around May of next year, he has still not set a firm date other than to say that he will not still be prime minister at the time of next year’s Labour conference in late September. A year is an eternity in politics. And already some anti-Blairites independent of Brown are calling for Blair’s defenestration as soon as possible.
In the immortal words of Bette Davis: “Fasten your seat belts — it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”
—John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.