Sunday, November 06, 2005

 

Is the End of Blair in Sight?

I wrote just after the election, on this then newly minted blog, that from columnists advising him to go at once the beleagured Blair might be seen in a different light come the autumn. I was partly right. Blair soon shrugged off the poor perceptions by carrying on as if nothing was any different. This strategy works when there is not anything seriously wrong and when the press criticism is more the result of hacks looking for something to fill their columns. The terrorist assaults of 7/7- which might have resulted in a backlash against the man who made the country more vulnerable to such attacks- ironically gave him the platform to show himself at his best: being firm of purpose and Chuchillian of phrase at the G8 meeting in Edinburgh. This effect lasted until quite recently.

But a number of legislative hitches have hampered the government's progresss and Blair' authority. The education White Paper, which suggested removing schools from LEA control as the Conservatives had done to Labour outrage under Thatcher had caused even more outrage now that Labour was suggesting a reprise. The proposed amalgamation of Primary Health Care Trusts had raised more hackles within the Labour Party; health has been much reformed and few believe more restructuring is jufified. The Terror Bill has caused much dissent-that victory on a part of it by a single vote last week weakened Blair- and still does. The smoking policy Cabinet upset drained a little more from Blair's prime ministerial authority. Other bones of contention concern invalidity benefits and pensions, but the biggest blow has certainly been the loss of Blunkett, after Blair had supported him several times and in public. And Blair really needed Blunkett's connection with Labour voters to strenghthen his hand on a number of measures not just with public opinion but in Cabinet too. This one was below the waterline, hence the near obituaries being penned right now and the comparisons with the last days of Major.

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, gave a talk to a conference I was at last year in which he spoke of the rapid flow of authority from the Major government in its last years. He was working partly in Number Ten so was well placed to observe this. Everyone knew Blair was the next PM: 'You could almost feel the authority draining away by the day' I recall him saying. Has this point been reached by Blair as Sir Anthony Meyer suggested in the Guardian this week?

I don't think so. Blair is a remarkably resilient and resourceful politician who is well used to crises and to surviving them. The Labour Party needs him to stay in power and engineer a smooth takeover for Brown so that the party can be in good nick before the last date for an election, which is May 2010. That there is a strong faction which wants him to go now is not in dispute and part of that is because Blair is being perceived as a PM intent on extablishing his place in history, possibly at the expense of his party. If enough MPs join this camp Blair could find himself, like Thatcher in 1990, suddenly faced with a revolt he cannot handle. To avoid this he has to ensure the 'loyal rebels', like the impressive John Denham, does not swell the 'usual suspects' of Frank Donson, Clare Short, Bob Marshall Andrews et al.

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