Today and tomorrow British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing the fight of his political life. The odds are that he will survive in office, but it is not impossible that he will be forced to resign. And even if this political Houdini leaps free to victory yet again, his political authority will be permanently damaged.
Americans who see Blair as a tough, resolute and eloquent leader–and as a loyal friend of the U.S.–must wonder how things reached this nadir. Their surprise is shared by many British political observers who ask how a prime minister with a parliamentary majority of more than 160 could find himself facing a serious government defeat. What is happening? Why? And what does it tell us about the future of British politics–and Britain’s relationship with the U.S?
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but this isn’t really about the U.S. Indeed, the first installment of Mr. Blair’s troubles this week concerns the highly domestic issue of how much British students should pay for their university educations. Traditionally, the Labor party believes that the taxpayer should pick up the whole bill. But Blair and the New Labor “modernizers” argue that this has produced second-rate, run-down colleges and small student numbers compared to the U.S. They propose instead that students should pay variable fees, determined by each college, for different courses, up to a maximum of
$4500 per annum. Now, in practical and financial terms, this is a very modest reform indeed–and it is getting more modest every day as the government waters it down to win over Labor rebels. But it is highly symbolic to both sides. To “Old Labor” it marks the beginning of the privatization of university funding, and is therefore an actual retreat from socialism. It reinforces their distrust and even hatred of the prime minister as a closet Tory who has hijacked their party.
To Blair and the modernizers, on the other hand, it is the first serious attempt to fulfill the New Labor promises of improving public services without increased taxation. What makes Blair so determined to push it through is the realization that, so far, he has increased taxation without reforming the public services. With a growing sense of his own political mortality, Blair is a middle-aged man in a hurry.
As you eat your breakfast this morning, he is sitting in parliament listening to the debate on the second reading of this university finance bill. As many as 85 Labor rebels are expected to vote against it–perhaps just enough, when added to the Tory opposition, to defeat the government. If that happens, it will be a truly historic event–only the fourth time in a century that a government has lost a bill on second reading (when the principles, rather than the details, of legislation are being discussed). Yet, despite the high stakes at issue in Commons, Blair will almost certainly slip away after the opening speeches and return to Downing Street. Why? At midday the report of the inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly by the senior British judge, Lord Hutton, will be delivered, under a strict 24-hour embargo, to the prime minister, to senior ministers, to government officials, and to others mentioned in it. Mr. Blair will want to read every word at least twice.
No one knows exactly what Lord Hutton has written–and the public will not find out until publication at noon on Wednesday. But the general expectation in Whitehall and Westminster is that the Law Lord will not blame Blair personally for the “naming” of Dr. Kelly that allegedly led to his death. He will, however, deliver a series of harsh judgments against Blair’s close Downing Street advisors, the minister of defense, and the government’s “spin” machine, along with the BBC and others, for their manipulative methods of presenting policy. The danger in this for the prime minister is that it will reinforce the widespread impression that Downing Street exaggerated the intelligence findings that Saddam Hussein had WMDs that posed an imminent threat–and that therefore, Blair took Britain into war on a false prospectus.
It is on this narrow point–did Blair mislead parliament and the people to launch the Iraq war?–that he is vulnerable. Not on the Iraq war itself, which most Brits support. Nor on the alliance with the U.S., which 62 percent of Brits–in a recent poll–think is a force for peace. Not even the future of the Anglo-American special relationship is at stake here, since the Tory leader, Michael Howard, is quite as pro-American as Blair and less enamored of such anti-American projects as a separate European defense. But if the question is “did the prime minister mislead parliament and the people?” it allows the Tories who supported the war to join anti-war Labor rebels in attacking him. It gives the new Tory leader, Michael Howard, who is a brilliant attacking lawyer in the British tradition, a good pretext to go for the jugular. It posthumously recruits David Kelly (who firmly believed in the WMD threat) for the anti-Blair camp. And it allows all his critics to point out that both Dr. David Kay, the weapons inspector, and Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, have in recent days seemingly contradicted the prime minister on whether Iraq had WMD stockpiles. In short, Blair is at risk because he placed almost total emphasis on Saddam’s possession of WMDs as justification for the war.
The irony is that Blair did so because it was the only argument to which his own Labor colleagues in the cabinet and on the backbenches were willing to listen. Realpolitik, patriotism, the human rights of the Iraqi people, fostering democracy in the Arab world–none of these arguments weighed with them. If the British people were not anti-American, the Labor majority in parliament was. It instinctively rejected the Iraq war as an imperialist venture by Washington. And Blair had to emphasize the WMD threat as the only countervailing argument powerful enough to sway them. On both the Hutton report and variable student fees, Blair’s troubles stem from the fact that he is leading a party that both dislikes him and disagrees with his general political outlook–and that now, with the confluence of these two crises, sees an opportunity to oust him. If today the government loses the parliamentary vote on student finance, it is bound by convention to call a confidence vote in a day or two. If tomorrow the Hutton report weakens Blair more than forecasts suggest, that debate would take place in an atmosphere of crisis. If the opinion polls show Blair losing public confidence, then some Labor MPs might be tempted to abstain. If there was even a modest Labor rebellion in a confidence vote, then Mr. Blair might decide to throw in the towel and resign in favor of Chancellor Gordon Brown.
If, if, if. There are altogether too many “ifs” in this scenario. The likelihood is that, even if the government loses today and Mr. Blair is wounded by Hutton tomorrow, he will remain in Downing Street until the next election.
But he will be damaged goods. His party will continue restive. He will find his authority over cabinet and backbenchers weakened. He will be unable to push through the public-sector reforms that were his own test of success. He will face a stronger Tory opposition rising in the opinion polls. And he will realize that the British public–faced with such evidence as last week’s figures showing a 14 percent increase in crime–no longer believes in the cleansing myth of New Labor. Even if Blair wins the next election, which is still just about likely, he will no longer be the dominant figure who changed British politics forever. In Browning’s words:
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part- the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!