Sunday, May 14, 2006


Brown's Vendetta Threatens his own Legacy

Despite the best efforts of that resilient and most resouceful of politicians, and clearly against his own instincts, Blair's fingers are being prized off the Number 10 tiller. In the Economist Bagehot points out that, unlike Thatcher, when her time was running out, 'Mr Blair is still quite liked by his senior colleagues.' The one big exception is a certain glowering Scot, who, it seems, has now donned his armour and is openly fighting to maximise his time in charge before the next election. I had not quite realised, until reading Martin Kettle, yesterday, how deeply personal this has become. For example, there have been regular meetings- some 15 of them- since the start of the year, between 'lieuftenants' from both camps to 'prepare the handover strategy' but they had been abandoned as 'Brown would not trust Blair'.

In the Observer today Andrew Rawnsley advances the argument a few stages further. He points out that, by publicly reminding Blair, very recently, of Mrs Thatcher's lachrymose exit in 1990, he was suggesting darkly to his rival that unless TB accepted GB's version of what the party needs, gentlemen with baseball bats would soon be knocking on the door of Number 10 to administer their own version of Labour justice. It's true things could get rougher still for Blair if the Conservatives decide not to support Blair over the Education Bill when it returns to the Commons in a week's time for its second reading.

But the really big priority now for Labour, is for the feuding to end. Local activists have been forced to stand impotently by as chaotic behaviour by party leaders has decimated ranks on local councils the length and breadth of the land. Now the seats at issue are Labour MPs at the next general election and their prospects of being returned are fast gurgling down the plughole. As Rawnsley emphasises, the argument is not really about policy- Blair sees Gordon as 'absolutely New Labour to his fingertips'- nor is it anymore about giving decent time before the election; Blair probably accepts he should go by 2008.

But by pressing Blair to go earlier than he wants, Gordon is risking the future of his party for a decade or more and indeed his own putative career as PM. The almost total lack of vocal support from behind when Blair when being savaged by Cameron at PMQs last Wednesday, reinforces the impression that his party is prepared-no doubt relectantly- to dump him. Gordon knows he holds the trump cards but, curiously, if he plays them, he wins the trick, yet he loses the game.

You have it the wrong way round. Without the apparent pressure from Brown, without the in-fighting, Blair's leadership would appear stable. If that were the case, it would be damaging for the party and it would shorten Blair's leadership, and possibly leave Brown out of thing altogether. As long as Blair looks wounded and, above all, to be on his way out sooner rather than later, people will stick with Labour who would otherwise be quitting; and Blair would likely be facing a leadership challenge from the backbenches within the next couple of months.

And I think there is a policy issue. Blair and, perhaps more importantly, his lieutenants, want New Labour to go further, to move Labour further to the right. Brown doesn't, and might even want to drag Labour back towards the centre of the spectrum. Blair is an ideologue, the most dogmatic leader Labour has ever had, and someone congenitally incapable of compromise; Brown is more of a pragmatist, and it's possible that he'd be willing to drop some of New Labour's most obvious and costly failures. And, of course, there's the comparrison with Thatcher and Major again - Major was Thatcher's candidate, the man chosen to continue her legacy, yet almost as soon as he became leader he moved to distance himself as much as possible from her, to be as different as he could (and that's why he won in 1992, incidentally).
Can't really follow your reasoning Gregg. Even without GB's pressure TB would still face loads of pressure from the press and from the Campaign group. I'm not sure either about your suggestion TB would be in greater danger without a GB challenge. Nor indeed is it proven GB would be more pragmatic; he's been pretty stubborn on loads of things over the last nine years. I would tend to argue also, that TB is dogmatic in defence of his rectitude rather than an ideologue.
Even without GB's pressure TB would still face loads of pressure from the press and from the Campaign group

And well beyond that - and that's exactly my point. Without the open pressure from Brown, pressure from other sources would explode. Brown is, effectively, the release valve for opposition to Blair; his status as heir apparent, and the pressure from his camp that makes his rise seem near rather than far, has so far prevented an open challenge. A lot of Labour MPs want Blair gone as soon as possible, but they also want an orderly transition rather than an open fight. With Brown as heir, they're willing to wait - but they aren't willing to wait forever, and if they believed Brown was sitting back and letting Blair take as long as he liked to go, they would have signed-up to one of the putative backbench challenges last year or right now (if only in the belief that once a leadership contest is underway, Brown would have no choice but to run).

At least three backbenchers have tried to gather enough MPs' signatures to launch such a challenge in the past 12 months, and one apparently got quite close (a rumoured 50 odd of the 72 currently recquired). If it weren't for the promise of Blair's impending replacement by Brown, there would have been enough signatories either last summer, or during the fight over the education White Paper, or right now in the wake of the recent local elections, to trigger a leadership election.

Nor indeed is it proven GB would be more pragmatic; he's been pretty stubborn on loads of things over the last nine years.

But usually over the right things - the minimum wage, for instance, which Blair wanted to axe.

It's not proven he'd be more pragmatic, no. But I'm optimistic, and it's not as if he could be less pragmatic, so at worse we'd exchange Blair for someone just as bad (and of the realistic candidates who've been touted as possible successors, Brown is the least Blair-like mentioned to date). I don't think it's unrealistic to expect that Brown will be John Smith to Blair's Neil Kinnock, and will spend more time fighting the Tories and less fighting his own party.

I would tend to argue also, that TB is dogmatic in defence of his rectitude rather than an ideologue.

Blair is certainly self-righteous, but that's borne from his dogmatism. He said, after the last election, that he had "listened and learned". Yet since then, he's pursued the same failed Thatcherite policies, now in health and education, that have cost Labour its base. I may be overly optimistic, but I don't think Brown would do that - not when those policies are proving to be such expensive and destructive failures, and not when it means Labour risks a landslide defeat.
Really interesting analysis, giving a new slant on the fraught relationship in the light of party dynamics. Thanks
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