Politics & Policy

Tonto Tony

Blair's opposition is his own party.

Will the Rt. Hon. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair — Britain’s prime minister and America’s favorite European — be the first casualty of the Second Gulf War? If this question seems eccentric or extreme, that is only because Tony Blair is held in much higher esteem abroad than in his native country. And if that seems an odd judgment on a man who revived the stricken Labor party, led it to victory in two elections, and still outdistances his Tory opponents in the opinion polls, the explanation lies in an old story.

A new member of parliament on the Labor side, pointing to the green leather benches opposite, asked an old-timer: “Is that where the enemy sits?”

“No, lad,” replied the old-timer. “That’s where the opposition sits. The enemy sits on our side.”

Blair’s current troubles stem from the fact that he is hated and despised by his own party — the blend of socialist Old Labor that survives from the past and reformist New Labor that he helped to create in the last decade. Whatever the other differences between Old and New Labor, they tend to agree on the importance of the United Nations, the need to tie down Uncle Sam with international ties and treaties, and the Texan recklessness of George W. Bush (or any Republican president, come to that.)

By taking up a firm position as Tonto to the Lone Bushranger, Blair has outraged the deepest sensibilities of his own party on foreign policy. If the U.N. Security Council eventually blesses a liberation of Iraq, he will have enough of a fig leaf to carry the great majority of Labor MPs with him in supporting the war. If the U.S.-led coalition invades Iraq without U.N. approval, then Blair will face a serious rebellion on the enemy benches.

That rebellion might be kept small if Blair enjoyed the affection and respect of his party on other political issues. In the last few months, however, he has also adopted domestic political positions that both run directly counter to the outlook of Old Labor and make New Labor nervously uncomfortable.

In short order, he has outlined plans to charge higher fees for college education financed by graduate loans; opposed any elected element in his reform of the House of Lords; talked aloud about withdrawing Britain from the Convention on Refugees in order to control the number of “asylum seekers” entering the country; and proposed to allow private-sector hospitals to operate in the socialized National Health Service-Labor’s Ark of the Covenant.

It is hard to think of a precise American comparison, but all this is a little like the Rev. Jesse Jackson coming out against affirmative-action racial preferences.

What makes Blair’s position still more precarious is that there is a potential successor close to hand — in fact, literally next door. Chancellor Gordon Brown — Britain’s puritanical treasury secretary whose official residence is 11 Downing Street — is almost as powerful as Blair himself. He inherited a strong economy from the Tories, kept to the cautious Tory spending plans for Labor’s first term, and gained considerable political kudos from the resulting prosperity. But as a faithful Old Labor man, Brown also imposed a whole host of “stealth taxes” and tighter regulations and after the second election victory in 2001 he sharply increased public spending in order to bail out the unreformed health system.

Brown is therefore highly popular with Labor MPs. But because his over-spending is now producing serious deficits, this puritanical gambler has to cash in his political chips before the economy tanks and ruins his reputation.

According to Whitehall gossip, Brown is sending daily reminders to his next-door neighbor of the Treaty of Granita. This was the deal between them, forged at the Granita restaurant in North London, under which Brown withdrew from the Labor leadership contest and helped Blair to become prime minister in return for Blair’s promise to hand over the keys to Number 10 halfway through his second term. That halfway point comes up later this year.

Blair is therefore facing several threats simultaneously — and facing them down. Why?

Old Labor stalwarts explain that Blair was a Tory all along. New Labor strategists claim, slightly more subtly, that Blair was a reformer all along — but that his reforming instincts toward the sluggish public sector were repeatedly obstructed by Brown. Now, after six years of power, he now feels ashamed of how little he has accomplished domestically and fears for his place in history. Will he be remembered as a New Labor caretaker in an Old Labor government?

Whatever the explanation, Blair is now acting with an almost reckless abandon in outraging his party on several fronts simultaneously — and defiantly attacking the “peace” marchers who mobilized about a million protesters last weekend. He is high on political courage.

Can he win all these battles? He has three great advantages: First, it is inherently very difficult to get rid of an incumbent prime minister (notwithstanding the example of Margaret Thatcher). Second, on the key issue of Iraq, he enjoys the support of the 163 opposition Tories. And third, as even his critics concede, he is likely to be on the winning side in the Iraq conflict.

What that means is that he is almost impossible to dislodge in parliament while the conflict continues. Given Tory support, he could survive any rebellion of Labor MPs smaller than 245 — or about 60 percent of the Labor parliamentary party — in a “no confidence” vote. And a rebellion on that scale is so unlikely as to be fanciful.

He would be equally unassailable if the Anglo-American campaign enjoys an easy victory achieved with very few casualties. Such a triumph, indeed, would probably give him the prestige and inspiration to push ahead with a reformist program.

It is only in the event of a long-drawn-out campaign involving serious British casualties that Blair would be vulnerable to a rebellion in the aftermath — and then he would be very vulnerable indeed. A Cabinet rebellion over the conduct of the war, several major resignations (including Gordon Brown), Labor backbenchers baying for blood (not oil) — all these might well happen and lead to Blair leaving politics as Anthony Eden was compelled to do after the failure of the Suez operation.

But a failed Iraq invasion is much less likely than the Suez collapse if only because the United States today is a far stronger power than Britain and France jointly were in 1956. If there is to be any other anti-Blair rebellion with a prospect of success, it will almost certainly be over some unrelated domestic issue (on which the Tories do not support Blair) some months after the post-Iraq euphoria has faded.

And here the crystal ball gets very cloudy. Blair’s parliamentary majority is so large at 165 that it would require a revolt by almost one quarter of the 410 Labor MPs to threaten it. Even if there were a rebellion over, say, the introduction of market reforms into the National Health Service, therefore, he could well decide to fight it.

One way would be to head a minority New Labor government in a House of Commons-that would then be divided between at least four parties — seeking allies on an issue-by-issue basis. The other would be to seek coalition allies outside the Labor party — as Labor’s first prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald, allied with the Tories and defeated his own party in the 1931 election.

Both courses would be risky. But the coalition option depends on a prior crucial question: Who would be Blair’s allies?

It is easy to guess whom Blair would want as his allies-and whom he would prefer to avoid. Because most Tories are Euroskeptics hostile to Britain joining the Euro single currency, he would prefer to keep them on the opposition benches and off the enemy ones. Blair dreams of taking Britain in the Euro and receiving the European presidency as his reward after Downing Street. He wants the Tories out of power indefinitely.

Like many British politicians of the last century, including Lloyd George and Churchill, he would like to create a Center party that combines the New Labor Right, the centrist Liberal Democrats, and the shrinking pro-European wing of the Tories. And that is a coalition he might be able to put together in the heat of a government crisis — even though some Lib-Dems currently posture as being to New Labor’s left.

Realizing this vision is unlikely, of course. Realignments can seldom be managed so neatly. But even if such a government were to be forged, it would be a government united around reforming the public sector (necessary but unpopular) and joining the Euro (unpopular and not necessary). And it would therefore transform the currently irrelevant Conservative party led by the unknown figure of Iain Duncan Smith into the only acceptable opposition party for anyone to vote for in the next election that, as it happens, is likely to be dominated by the euro.

Something very similar happened in 1922 when the glittering Coalition of Lloyd George, Churchill, Birkenhead, and practically every other prominent British statesmen of the day was humiliatingly defeated by the Tories under Bonar Law who promptly went on to become famous as “the unknown prime minister.”

Blair will probably remain prime minister until he decides to step down voluntarily. But there are rapids ahead — and as history shows, no one can tell in advance who will sink and who swim when the boat capsizes.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of United Press International. This was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.



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