Every government hits a “Black Wednesday” in the end. For John Major’s Tory government it was Wednesday, September 16, 1992, when the Pound Sterling crashed out of the European fixed exchange system and destroyed the Tory Party’s reputation for economic competence.
For Tony Blair it was last Wednesday when his government’s reputation for overall competence was destroyed by three disasters.
First–and most serious–it was revealed that the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, a leading Blair loyalist, had released onto the streets 1,023 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 rape. To complete the picture of what the British call “a complete bloody shambles,” no one seemed to know where they now where.
Second, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, a 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.
The third episode was less a scandal than a brutal sign of the government’s decline in popular appeal even with its natural supporters. Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, was booed by a conference of nurses when she claimed that the National Health Service had had its best year ever–when health service workers are being fired across Britain.
Each crisis was damaging in itself because it crystallized some failure of the Blair government–and then added to it.
The Clarke crisis illustrated the government’s loss of control over immigration. Ministers have little idea of how many people enter Britain, who they are–or even, now, how to get the bad guys out again.
The Prescott crisis was the latest of a series of scandals like the sale of peerages that have made New Labor synonymous with “sleaze.” Now Prescott was extending this indictment to puritanical Old Labor too.
And Ms. Hewitt was the luckless symbol of a government that has poured billions into public services without actually improving them. Boasting about this record was a gaffe too far.
To make everything worse, Black Wednesday took place eight days before this Thursday’s local elections. It is universally assumed that these elections will go badly for Labor. According to a Sunday Times-YouGov poll, less than one-third of voters intend to vote Labor. Its local candidates face an electoral massacre.
In that event Labor MPs say that Blair must publicly announce an early date for his resignation. Finance Minister Gordon Brown could then take over in a smooth transition with some hope of restoring Labor’s fortunes. If not, the Labor party might descend into the kind of fraternal bloodletting that destroyed Major’s Tories.
And that’s the optimistic analysis. Labor’s unpopularity is now so deep-seated that a new Prime Minister, particularly the dour Old Labor Brown, whom the public associates with higher taxes, might be unable to revive the government’s fortunes. Its best hope lies in the failure of the opposition parties to offer an attractive alternative.
The Tories under their new leader, David Cameron, are undergoing either a cultural makeover or a nervous breakdown as they re-brand themselves as a Green party that rejects lower taxes and believes in wealth redistribution. This transformation has not proved a vote-winner. Until Black Wednesday they were level-pegging with Labor. They have risen to a modest 35 percent since then. They will do well on Thursday. But their success will be based on Labor’s retreat rather than on Tory conversions.
The principal beneficiaries of Labor’s collapse will be the smaller parties. The centrist Liberal Democrats now score a respectable 18 percent in the polls. They will do better in the actual voting–maybe overtaking one of the major parties.
The real shocker is that 15 percent of voters say they will vote for “other” parties. Usually, that figure is one or two per cent. What makes this doubly shocking is the other parties: the United Kingdom Independence Party and the British National Party.
UKIP is a decent Euroskeptic party, mainly disillusioned Tories, with an Ealing Comedy flavor. But the BNP is a semi-fascist party on the model of the French National Front. And boosted by the Clarke fiasco, the BNP is likely to get the lion’s share of that fifteen percent.
On Friday morning, therefore, Tony Blair is likely to wake up to three headlines: Labor Collapses, MPs Tell Blair–Resign, and Massive BNP Gains.
It is not the legacy that Tony Blair intended to leave.
—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.