An amateurish coup turns a courageous international statesman into a lame duck
In early October 2004, as I was driving home from church, I received an unexpected phone call from the switchboard at Number 10 Downing Street, asking me to stand by while I was connected to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister.
Blair had just announced his decision not to seek a fourth term, and he was calling round Fleet Street editors in an attempt to persuade them that he was not a “lame duck” and that he had both the time and the mandate to see through his domestic reform program. I disagreed, arguing that his announcement was likely to inflame, rather than calm, speculation about the leadership of the Labour Party, and would present
overwhelming problems for a domestic and foreign policy program that large parts of the electorate and the party detested.
With characteristic self-belief, the Prime Minister argued that he did not, like Margaret Thatcher, want to “go on forever,” and that he owed it to the next generation of leaders to give them time to prepare for government. He said he had the mandate, the support, and the energy to lock “New Labour” in place as Britain’s first successful governing party of the centre-left.
He was wrong. Last week, internal plotting and mass resignations forced Blair to publicly announce that he would be gone in less than a year. Gordon Brown, Blair’s formidable chancellor (finance minister) and probable successor, is now setting about the business of consolidating power within the party, and “Blairite” cabinet ministers, who feel they have a limited future in a Brown government, are casting about for leadership candidates to oppose him.
And so it is that a country facing a worsening economic climate, a stalled domestic policy program, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq, will have to wait while Labour Party factions vie with each other to secure their respective futures.
The current woes have their roots in a pact concluded between Blair and Brown before Labour’s historic 1997 election victory, in which the latter promised not to fight for the leadership of the Labour Party if the former gave
him a crack at the top job after the so-called “New Labour” project had bedded itself in.
Both men collaborated to establish New Labour’s model of “Third Way” government, a combination of (relatively) free-market economics with the paradigms of social justice. The birth of New Labour happily coincided with unprecedented growth in the economy. Everybody was making money, and they got to have a conscience, too. The “them and us” political dynamic so successfully prosecuted by Margaret Thatcher gave way to a new,
cuddly and socially responsible consensus where the captain of industry’s interests could easily live alongside those of the minimum wage earner.
Both men conspired to break the power of the unions on party policy, and, much to Brown’s credit, the Bank of England was allowed to make its own decisions on interest rate policy. But all along, it has been Blair’s powers ofleadership and persuasion that have enlivened the New Labour project. Put simply, he and Brown mixed the ingredients for the New Labour cake, but it was Blair’s consummate political skills that made the cake rise.
Underneath all this seethed the ambitions of Brown, who is, at heart, an old-fashioned socialist. His chancellorship, though brilliant in many respects, has been characterized by a lowgrade, 10-year sulk. He used new and unprecedented powers at the Treasury to secure an iron grip on domestic policy, and has on key occasions, through the last-minute alignment of his faction with government policy, reminded Blair that his political fortunes are dependent to an unusual degree on Brown’s goodwill.
Brown has also become adept at remaining silent at times of great difficulty for the Prime Minister, only expressing solidarity with Blair when speculation about a rift between the two men has reached fever pitch. Last week, he failed to do so, and Blair, the most successful Labour prime minister ever, after winning a third successive general election, is on his way out. No amount of backpedalling on the chancellor’s part can avoid the unseemly manoeuvring by Labour factions whose representatives speak openly on air about wanting to preserve New Labour’s lustre, but who are really concerned with gaining or retaining power.
Last week’s events were, put simply, an embarrassment. Blair did not deserve to be forced into a humiliating public statement on his political shelf life by such a sophomoric coup attempt.
The fun started when the Prime Minister, in an interview with the Times, asked his party
‘BLAIR’S BRAND OF CENTRELEFTISM CHANGED THE RULES IN POLITICS/ SAYS ONE WRITER
to “stop obsessing” about a timetable for his departure, prompting a “Brownite” former minister to warn publicly that “the leadership issue has to be sorted out sooner rather than later.” This was soon followed by news that up to 80 MPs were willing to sign a letter calling for Blair’s resignation. On Wednesday last week, the Sun reported that Blair had set May 31 next year as his departure date—too late for many (especially Brown), who balked at the prospect of eight months of unravelling Labour fortunes under a Prime Minister they themselves were so expertly transforming into a lame duck.
There followed a shouting match at Number 10 between Blair and Brown, during which it was reported (though subsequently denied by the chancellor) that the latter threatened to unleash a torrent of resignations and protest letters unless the Prime Minister resigned by Christmas. As an early taster, a junior defence minister and seven parliamentary private secretaries resigned their positions.
Thus Blair was forced out into the open to announce that the forthcoming Labour Party conference would be his last. He then left for the Middle East to try and cement the ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel, while the chancellor appeared on television to deny any part in the attempted coup, and to assure viewers and politicians alike that he would make an extremely collegial prime minister.
So where does this leave the country? The reader should refer to the earlier comment that Brown is an old-fashioned socialist. He has presided over an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the affluent southeast to traditional Labour power bases in areas such as the northeast, Wales and Scotland. He has massively increased the tax burden to fund increases in spending on the National Health Service and education to, it must be said, pretty negligible effect. In place of the old Labour “client” groupings such as the unions, he has created hundreds of thousands of low productivity public servants, all with public sector pensions the country cannot afford to pay, and all of whom vote Labour if they can bother to vote at all. The expansion of welfare and the public sector means that, by some calculations, just under half the working-age population in Britain is beholden to the state for its income.
With Blair gone, one can only cringe at the prospect of Britain under its first socialist prime minister since the dark days of Jim Callaghan. Perhaps Brown will undergo a damascene conversion, but he may be, at heart, too horrified by the notion that the healthiest economies are those that rest on people making their own choices with their own money.
And what of the international scene? Blair was a courageous international statesman, in his solidarity with the United States and in his concern for the preservation of the Anglosphere, that unique grouping of Englishspeaking countries with binding historical and cultural ties.
Britain, though part of Eùrope, has ever been mistrustful of ever-increasing integration with the Continent. Instead, through unofficial
and official avenues, sometimes formally, sometimes quite by accident, Britain has found common strategic cause with its Englishspeaking allies. It is this profound attachment to the Anglosphere that has led to Blair’s strong relationship with the Bush regime.
The same attachment underpins Australia’s support for the war on terror. It is significant that Canadian,
United States and British troops are the only Western soldiers losing their lives in the field in Afghanistan.
It appears that whenever international circumstances demand military intervention, it is members of the Anglosphere that are ready to get their hands dirty.
Blair’s relationship with the United States was also born from history and pragmatism. The United States intervened twice in the last century to stop Europe tearing itself apart, and allowed Western Europe to shelter under its wing during the dangerous days of the Cold War. From tsunami disaster management to Balkans genocide, the United States has always been at the centre of efforts to prosecute the collective will ofWestern democracies, eclipsing in speed and determination all efforts by the United Nations or some putative “Euro Army.”
Blair alone among European leaders seems to understand that the cycle of worldwide Islamist violence has little to do with Iraq or Palestine. When Osama bin Laden first took to the airwaves after 9/11, he did not mention Palestine, but rambled on instead about the reconquest of Muslim Spain centuries ago. Fundamentalist attacks on Western states were coming regardless of the response to 9/11, and Blair is one of the few Western leaders who formulated his foreign policy accordingly.
This week, David Cameron, the leader of the newly resurgent Conservative Party, gave a speech upbraiding the United States for its pre-emptive foreign policy. Cameron is keen to exploit growing anti-Americanism in Britain and, with his earnest assurances that he is not a “neo-conservative,” risks severing the traditionally strong bond successive Conservative administrations have enjoyed with the White House.
What does Brown think of all this? He has kept pretty silent over these issues, probably because they have proved such a liability to
BRITAIN IS AT RISK OF SINKING INTO THE MORASS OF HAND-WRINGING AND HEAD-IN-THE-SAND DIPLOMACY
Blair. But it is unlikely that he shares the same world view as the Prime Minister (he seems more taken with debt relief for Africa), and he must know that the fastest way to consolidate political power is to reverse or dilute Blair’s foreign policy.
So it might be that, with Blair gone, Britain sinks into the morass of hand-wringing, headin-the-sand diplomacy that so characterizes European foreign policy. It is not in Europe’s interest that its diplomatic “bridge” to the United States, represented by Blair’s government, crumbles into the Atlantic.
Already, the feeding frenzy has prompted many considerations of what Blair’s legacy might be. His critics point to the dead of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the toll of victims of terrorist atrocities since the invasion of the latter country. His allies point to his “rescue” of the public services.
But some are now beginning to construct a new legacy for Blair: we see in France the emergence of two modernizing presidential
candidates from the left and right—respectively, Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, whose platforms appear to be based on Blair’s unique centre-left model of government. In the words of Philip Stephens, author of Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader: “[Blair’s] brand of centre-leftism changed the rules in politics .... By detaching ends from means, values from policies, he has liberated (or should have) the left from its old obsessions. Economic efficiency and social justice remain the most powerful legacy in contemporary politics.”
Indeed, David Cameron has in the past described himself as “Blair’s heir,” much to the fury of Conservative right-wingers who believe that Tory fortunes can only be revived in accordance with Thatcherite principles.
Cameron speaks of his love for the public sector, refuses to commit to tax cuts, and is big on the environment. At the same time he speaks of personal responsibility and the evils of big government. Though many of his pronouncements at this early stage seem disingenuous and sometimes plain stupid (as with the United States), it is strategically sound for him to glean what he needs from the revolution wrought by one of this country’s most successful prime ministers.
But, looking ahead, and with the economy losing its lustre, many are beginning to feel the pinch. Unless public services are reformed, and immigration curtailed, the only recourse for the government is to raise taxation. Already, the divisions between public and private wage earners are becoming more acute, with the latter increasingly having to find more amounts of personal income to support the former. The “them and us” sentiments that underpinned Thatcherism could be set for a return. M
Martin Newland is a former editor of London’s Daily Telegraph, and former deputy editor of the National Post.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.