Will the Blair government end with a bang or a whimper? That is really the only remaining question to be decided one week after the British local elections delivered a wounding and perhaps fatal blow to the New Labor government and to Prime Minister Tony Blair personally.
Labor lost 319 seats. That was a serious defeat but it fell short of the utter rout of 400 losses that the gloomiest forecasts had predicted. On the morning after (admittedly before the full scale of the defeat was known), it looked possible Blair might survive for a further two years or even longer.
He had declared his intention of resigning before the next national election (which must be held no later than May 2010) even before last year’s general election. Plainly, however, he did not want to depart until he had pushed through enough “New Labor” reforms, mainly in health and education, to constitute a “legacy.” And that would require at least two years–and maybe more.
As the Labor losses mounted, he must have felt rather like another character crushed by implacable fate, John Cleese’s headmaster, who in the Michael Frayn film Clockwise, cries out: “It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Blair’s all-but-designated successor, has to wonder, however, if this week’s losses leave enough room for an electoral recovery by his preferred date of May 2009 for the next general election.
Almost every Labor MP standing again in that election feels the same. They now regard Blair as an electoral liability. But would forcing him out damage their chances more than continuing to stagger on under his leadership? A loss of 400 seats would have settled the question in favor of ousting him. A loss of only 200 seats–the opposite. But as it is . . . it’s the hope they can’t stand . . .
So what’s next? As regards the future of the entire government, ministers always make the same arguments after a midterm defeat: all governments are unpopular in midterm; this is merely an average debacle; and it follows a particularly bad run of news. That last argument at least is true enough.
One week before the elections, the Blair government suffered its own “Black Wednesday” when three ministers spectacularly embarrassed Downing Street.
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, a leading Blair loyalist, had released onto the streets 1023 foreign criminals, including murderers and rapists, instead of deporting them after their sentences had been served. At least five of these criminals had later committed serious crimes–one a murder. To complete the picture of what the British call “a complete bloody shambles,” no one knew where they were–and since then the total has more than doubled.
On that same day, the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, a bluff symbol of Old Labor rectitude, was discovered to have had a flaming affair with a civil servant in his office, Ms Tracey Temple. Sunday’s tabloid papers contained her account of their trysts. One had taken place in a government apartment immediately after a ceremony honoring Britain’s Iraq war dead; another in a hotel suite while an oblivious Mrs. Prescott waited for her husband in the downstairs restaurant. (To be fair, Prescott is a busy man . . . )
The final episode was less a scandal than a brutal sign of the government’s decline in popularity even with its natural supporters. Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was booed by nurses when she claimed that the National Health Service was enjoying its best year ever. Since health workers were being fired across Britain at the time, it was a gaffe too far. But Hewitt suffered mainly from being the luckless symbol of a government that had poured billions into public services without actually improving them.
When the disaster of Black Wednesday was followed by the catastrophe of the local elections, someone’s head had to roll. Blair needed to assure the voters that their displeasure has been taken seriously, to punish failure, and to give the government a fresh look. But how many heads? And whose? If Blair was to keep a clear head on his own shoulders, a loss of more than 300 seats would suggest a fairly large reshuffle of lesser ones.
Sure enough, when the re-shuffle was announced only a few hours after the election results, it proved to be a wholesale remaking of the government. Almost every minister was moved for one reason (disloyalty) or another (incompetence.)
Disloyal and incompetent Prescott lost almost all of his many responsibilities but kept his title of Deputy Prime Minister, his two official homes, and his chauffeured car. Hmmn . . . he is likely to be a grateful and impotent supporter of Blair hereafter. Incompetent Blair loyalist Clarke was fired–to be replaced by tough successful Blair loyalist John Reid. Moderately competent but dubiously loyal Jack Straw was demoted from the Foreign Ministery and replaced by loyal Margaret Beckett (Motto: Forgotten But Not Gone.) And rising Blair loyalist, Alan Johnson, whom well-informed people have recently begun discussing as a possible successor to Blair if a bus runs over Gordon Brown, was promoted to the key post of education. Loyalist Hewitt survived–just.
This reshuffle was the act of a prime minister who plainly intends to stay in power as long as he possibly can. He has transformed both the Cabinet and the Labor party machine into a praetorian guard of Blair loyalists. Blair’s motto might almost be the remark of former Labor prime minister, Harold Wilson, when faced with a similarly rebellious party: “I know what’s going on. I am going on.”
But Brown, his supporters–only one of whom, Douglas Alexander, received a significant promotion–and the media immediately placed an even more sinister interpretation upon the reshuffle: namely, that the prime minister was determined not only to stay but also to be succeeded eventually by someone other than his brooding Chancellor. The promotion of Reid and Johnson was an unmistakable attempt to create rivals for the succession against Brown.
Once the Brownites realized that, they also realized that they had to oust Blair as soon as possible even at the temporary cost of party disunity. Brown loyalists began fanning out to the weekend programs to insist that there must be an “orderly” succession by an early date. Worse from Blair’s standpoint, they were joined by some New Labor loyalists who now join the Brownites and the Left in seeing Blair as a liability.
With his back to the wall, Blair this week told Labor MPs that he would leave his successor “ample” time in Downing Street to win the next election. That was interpreted by Brownites as next summer, by Blair loyalists as the Fall of 2008, and probably by both Blair and Brown as (for practical purposes)–Never.
And now Brown’s manhood is being questioned by commentators who point out that Brown, having been publicly humiliated by Blair over the succession on at least three occasions, responded each time by retreating into his corner, brooding ominously, sending out his creatures to moan and bitch, and, er, not much else. No wonder, they conclude, that Blair despises him.
That is somewhat unfair to Brown. Brown has responded to Blair’s affronts within government by quietly sabotaging and frustrating the Blair agenda of reform. He allowed foundation hospitals and independent schools to be established, but clapped such limitations on their power of independent action as to render the reforms pointless. Brown, in short, has deprived Blair of his legacy.
Hence Blair’s latest move: to suggest that he will depart in two years and smooth Brown’s passage into Number Ten Downing Street as long as Brown helps him to establish such a legacy in the intervening period. It is a deal that gleams brightly, but a poisoned chalice.
If Brown swallows it, there is no guarantee that Blair will prove more reliable on this occasion than on the previous ones. Over the next two years Reid, Johnson and even Clarke will be burnishing their leadership credentials (with prime-ministerial support.) And Brown’s own supporters will begin to worry if their man has the necessary steel to lead the Labor party into what looks likely to be the most closely-fought election since 1992. Like the commentators, they may conclude that he lacks the Right Stuff and drift into other camps.
Such a calculation should be further encouraged by the second main result of the election: the revival of the Tories under their new young leader, David Cameron, who won 39 per cent of the popular vote compared to the 27 percent gained by the centrist Liberal Democrats under their new elderly leader “Ming” Campbell.
This Tory success should not be exaggerated. It is only one per cent more than they won two years ago. It scarcely penetrated the inhospitable North of England. It occurs after six months of unbelievably favorable media coverage. And despite the existentialist despair that has gripped Tories in recent years, their party was bound to recover once the spell of New Labor was broken as it has been.
Even so, the fact that the Tories rather than the Lib-Dems immediately benefited from the breaking of that spell is crucial. As Labor MPs know well, the Lib-Dems are ultimately a nuisance. Only the Tories can actually defeat Labor and form a government. Until this week Labor enjoyed the advantage that there was no alternative to them. There is now. It weakens Labor. And Labor’s new nervousness weakens Blair even if Blair himself is determined not to acknowledge the fact.
Blair has the toughness to hang on–but he may be too damaged by the local elections to do so. Brown has been given a dagger by the elections and the discontent of Labor MPs to bring Blair down–but he may lack the inner steel to wield that dagger. The Labor party will be riven by a continuing internal struggle until either Blair wimperingly buckles under the pressure and leaves or Brown seizes his chance with the Bang of a resignation. While both hope, they will hesitate fatally for their party.
Oh what it is to be tortured by hope!
—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