Saturday, April 29, 2006


Blair's Awful Week and the Question of his Future

It's been quite a week for Tony Blair: the 'triple whammy' of Clarke, Hewitt and Prezza has left him winded politically and comparisons have been made with the 'fin de siecle' mid nineties period of John Major. How bad is it? Not as bad as that, I'd venture, for these three reasons:

1. Major's problems sprang substantially from the niggardly majority of 21, bequeathed him by the 1992 election. Blair's majority was slashed in May last year to 67 but is still highly servicable.

2. The economy is still doing pretty well. Unemployment is increasing and there a few danger signals but Brown is very used to managing things by now and, short of a major unforeseen economic, crisis should continue to do so. As the man hoping to inherit the throne, he has every reason not to lose his touch at this point.

3. Blair is a much more talented and resourceful politician than Major. We saw that after his re-election in 2005, voices were raised that he should go by the end of the summer. By the autumn, a combination of the removal of the EU constitution problem, the Olympic Games success and Blair's Churchillian response to the July bombings had transformed the situation. A mix of benign events plus his own formidable political skills had made the idea that he should go, in retrospect, seem absurd.

Blair is now a battle hardened politician who enjoys his job immensely and believes he has a mission to complete. As I have opined several times before, he will take some shifting. Is his position secure? The local elections, of course, are important and a total Labour meltdown in London would put more pressure on him to stand down. But as long as they are some way short of that and not too disastrous in the rest of the country, he can ride such failure out. The scandals swirling around the government are very damaging in the short and also longterm but unless a trail leads directly into Number 10, he will ride out those too. Will he go soon or will we look back on this fragile period from a position of transformed Blair strength by the autumn? My money would be on him surviving and going on until 2008-9 but it's the uncertainty, the volatility of politics, especially now, which, as Julian Critchley, used to say makes it such a rivetting 'spectator sport'.

I agree with most of what you have said - in particular the talent of Blair to turn a crisis into an opportunity. However I think that sticking it out to 2008-9 would be the wrong decision for the party. Brown (assuming he succeeds Blair) needs time to settle in and establish himself and would be forced to postpone calling an election until the end of the full five year term in 2010 which, historically, has never usually helped the incumbent government. My hope is that he goes in the summer of 2007 and that Labour can announce its new leader at the party conference in the autumn.
Not sure that what Gordon wants or needs is going to weigh all that heavily with Blair regarding his decision when to go. There are even some grounds for thinking-though I'm by no means convinced- that Tony is deliberately seeking to sabotage Brown's succession.
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