It is a testament to Tony Blair’s political success that even as he approaches his ninth year as prime minister, and faces two opposition parties stronger than either have been in a decade, no one expects anyone but him to remain prime minister the day after Britain’s next general election, likely to be held in a few months time.
But while presidents are elected and removed by the voters directly, a prime minister is dependent for his position on his party. If the leader of even a governing party cannot retain its support, that leader may be forced out, as one of Blair’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, discovered to her cost. Tony Blair’s problem may be that his party’s patience has finally run out.
The British Labour party chose Blair as leader a decade ago because, moderate and telegenic as he was, he was such a different sort of politician than those who had led Labour to four consecutive defeats. As a ticket to power, Tony Blair delivered, achieving landslide election victories in 1997 and 2001. But the dovish socialists who make up most of the Labour membership inside and outside parliament never quite extended their affections to Blair, even as they put their faith in him as an election winner. His interest in the values they upheld always seemed too slight.
For most of them, it was Blair’s support for the United States in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that finally made up their minds. The very usefulness to a Republican administration of a British prime minister willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. when so much of Europe and the world were of the opposite position is what so infuriated Labour’s Michael Moore-reading base.
Even before the Iraq war began, the opposition Conservative party was more supportive of Blair over Iraq than his own party. In the long and bloody aftermath of the invasion, antiwar voices within Labour feel themselves vindicated. Moreover, a precipitous decline in public support for the government has encouraged many of them to feel that Blair is now an electoral liability compared with most other candidates for Labour leader, especially the ambitious Treasury Secretary Gordon Brown, whose public and private pressure on Blair to quit in his favor has been relentless.
Quite apart from the pressures from his colleagues and Labour’s grassroots, Tony Blair is also privately ambivalent about whether he himself wants to go on much longer, and he has publicly pledged that he will quit at some point in Labour’s next term. His success in reforming the British constitution and making his party electable again have secured him some place in history, but these are changes that were completed many years ago, and the obstacles to placing the other cornerstones of his desired legacy are formidable. The recalcitrance of Labour’s representatives in parliament and the self-interest of the party’s financial backers in the labor unions have quashed any hopes of seriously reforming Britain’s patchy schools and socialized health-care system. Similarly, in foreign affairs, voters are more wary than ever of the European Union, their Euroskepticism forming an insuperable barrier to the Blair’s desire to be remembered as the man who secured Great Britain’s European destiny.
A well-sourced book out in January, Robert Peston’s Brown’s Britain, confirms that in November 2003 Blair had discussed his resignation with Gordon Brown, and–at the time–agreed to step down the following year.
Brown has increased his profile since Christmas, but is likely to remain where he is until the next election, expected on May 5, has been won. Believing himself to be too important to the government that Blair can afford to lose him, Brown has at times privately boasted that he will not consent to go on in his current role–the most senior minister save the prime minister–for a third term, but nor will he take a subordinate post. In the betting markets, the odds of Blair quitting in 2005 have shortened.
Even if Tony Blair makes it through the year, Britain faces a referendum in March 2006 on a new European constitution, so long as another country does not veto it first. Convincing Britons of the merits of submitting to a European super-state is a battle few believe Blair can win, but which would, if lost, almost certainly give the kiss of death to his premiership.
With indications from every significant quarter, including from Blair himself, that President Bush’s closest ally may not be around for much longer, it may be time for forward-looking American strategists to ask what the foreign policy of his successor–almost certainly Gordon Brown if Blair goes any time soon–is likely to be.
At first sight, a relaxed attitude would seem appropriate. Gordon Brown is in obvious ways more culturally American than European, as evidenced by his love of Washington D.C.’s political atmosphere and his habit of taking regular vacations in the U.S., while Blair prefers to stay in Europe. Brown is also more Euroskeptic than Blair politically, and has done more than any other Labour figure to halt steps towards British entry into the Euro currency.
But although Brown shows no signs of vulgar anti-Americanism, his pro-Americanism has important qualifications. The America he admires is strictly that of Bill Clinton, to whom he gives total credit for making the 1990s “America’s decade,” and whose 1992 presidential campaign he found an inspiration. His closest American friends are liberal names like Sidney Blumenthal and Bob Shrum. While open in his admiration for America’s dynamism and opportunity, Gordon Brown tempers his respect with typical socialist complaints about inequalities of wealth, as well as a reluctance to acknowledge which things make America a successful economy, and which that permit American citizens to be as successful as their talents will allow.
Above all, Gordon Brown is a creature of his party in a way that Tony Blair never has been. This difference is starkest at Labour’s annual conventions each September, as every year Blair will make a speech explaining Labour’s success in terms of a bold departure from its traditional values, while Brown determinedly attributes the success to those same Labour values Blair subtly repudiates.
In foreign policy, this is as true as anywhere else. While Blair has shown himself to understand the indispensability of force in foreign policy, Brown has accused Blair of wasting money on defense, forcing Blair to complain feebly that he’d be the first British prime minister in a century to lose a war. While Blair specifically rejected historical theories of balancing powers in an address to Congress, Brown’s view is that the U.K.’s role is to link the U.S. and Europe, with no apparent preference between them. Over Iraq, the greatest modern test of Britain’s commitment to America, Brown was only as supportive publicly as was absolutely necessary. Privately, he sneered at Blair’s support for Bush as “excessive,” urging delay before the conflict and a stronger commitment to the United Nations afterwards.
There is no chance of Brown being a diplomatic foe of America on a par with Jacques Chirac. But the unique qualities that ensured Tony Blair has supported the United States so strongly are not a part of Gordon Brown’s makeup. The Bush administration may soon wake up to a Britain whose prime minister’s pro-Americanism exists only to the extent that America is leftist and liberal, and whose effective commitment to her paramount goals and needs in these difficult times has vanished.