Friday, March 24, 2006

The Fate of Tony Blair

Commentary by Martin Kelly
October 28, 2004

The most common misconception about the political vision of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, is that he is ‘Bush’s poodle’ or ‘lapdog’. Tony is anything but – he is an equal partner in crime, driven by the same messianic vision of world order as that which seems to drive the 43rd President of the United States.

It would be fair to say that Blair’s administration has been the most politically successful of any since the Second World War – as, from a certain perspective, it might be said that the same could be true of Bill Clinton’s. Both men shared broadly the same social democrat agenda; both had come to power when the greatest perceived threats to national security had been overcome; both were still young men, full of vitality, in Blair’s case certainly a welcome public change from the stale faces of the Conservatives who had sat in government for the previous 18 years.

His election was the ultimate triumph of style over substance. The lustre began to fall off him within weeks, when it became clear that Formula One motor racing was to be exempted from the provisions of legislation aimed at banning tobacco advertising at sports events. Formula One’s billionaire owner, a petite former garage mechanic named Bernie Ecclestone, had made a hefty donation to Labour.

Since that time his administration has been riven by scandal. He has lost the same minister, Peter Mandelson, twice; once, for an issue of concern relating to a mortgage application; twice, for concern over a letter of support he may have written for a billionaire Indian looking to obtain a British passport. In the late summer of 2000, the country ground to a halt when farmers and teamsters blockaded oil refineries in protests at increases of 300% in the level of duty on red diesel – in three years! In 2001, Scotland’s biggest industry, tourism, took a pre -9/11 hammering after the first outbreak of foot and mouth disease in decades; the national herd has not yet fully recovered.

Economically, the rails have just come off. It took a long time, but it’s happened. The first thing that Blair did as Prime Minister was to make the Bank of England independent of the Treasury, with control of interest rates. The concerted assault by taxation on pension funds meant that the only secure long-term investment vehicle for the public was their dwelling, if they owned one. Since November 2003, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has been putting up interest rates, and movement in the property market is slowing down. For the first time in seven years, Brits are starting to think they’re worse off than they were under the Tories. Not usually a good sign.

A reader once wrote to me asking what I thought of Blair’s chances for the future. Being an extremely biased observer, I have to say regretfully say, not as bad as they might be.

If historians of the future ever decide to give a name to his time as leader, it should be called ‘The Great Disconnection’, because no politician has done more to disconnect the British public from politics than he has, through spin, sleaze, media management and close party control. The most important work of his premiership was done long before he ever became premier – what has sustained him in the very difficult political times he has suffered and caused others to suffer since 1997 has been that in the three years beforehand, he and a very small clique of people – Mandelson; his press adviser Alistair Campbell, an unashamed former gigolo and tabloid journalist; and probably his wife – moulded the Labour Party into his Blair’s image. Instead of being the party of class warfare, it became a safe party for vote for, the party of ‘Mondeo man’ driving the kids to soccer practice in a people carrier. He has loyalists, and ultra-loyalists – if there are two things that Patricia Hewitt, the Anglo-Australian Secretary Of State for Trade and Industry, can always be relied on to do, they are a) introduce into any debate the topic of how many women’s’ groups she’s met with recently; and b) back Tony.

This cadre of loyalists is to keep in check the hard left figure of Gordon Brown. As well as inciting considerable English racism (he is always described as a ‘dour ’ or ‘penny-pinching’ Scot), Brown is yang to his yin, the id to his ego, the fulcrum, focus and heartthrob of the hard left. They were never tamed – if you work as a teacher or a nurse in the UK you have never been better off, thanks to the power of Labour’s public sector union power base, and the rest can go hang – and they still like to flex their muscles, as the firemen did two years ago, and the London Underground drivers do regularly.

But in the court of public opinion, Blair is still viewed by many as being the least worst option. His only real rival for the leadership is Brown – the rest are largely non-entities. If Brown is kept onside, with a promise to stand aside at the end of the next parliament, Blair may realistically be able to enjoy perhaps another seven years in office. Did I just say, seven years? Ye gods, it didn’t hit me until then.

UK elections do not run on a standard four-year cycle – the maximum term of a parliament is five years. Although elections are normally held at the end of the fourth year, in the past 12 years, two have been held at the end of the fifth, 1992 and 1997. The last was held in 2001. There is talk of an election next year – we shall see. The major obstacles to him losing office should be the opposition parties, and the critical tests of public opinion towards the opposition are always parliamentary bye-elections.

The party that always does well at these elections are the Liberal Democrats. Led by Charles Kennedy, possibly the most unscrupulous man in British politics, they are the most unscrupulous of politicians – the Lib Dems form part of the Scottish Executive coalition; Kennedy campaigned against Scottish Executive health policy – they always do well at these votes. However, in Hartlepool at the end of September they came second behind Labour. The Conservatives came fourth.

Could he be forced to resign over Iraq? Naw, the time for that has been and gone. He survived the Hutton report into the death of David Kelly (the remit of which was heavily skewed in the government’s favour) and he survived the Butler report into the question of the intelligence surrounding WMD. If neither of these brought him down, nothing in Iraq will.

What are his chances of re-election? With Michael Howard as Leader of the Conservatives, Gordon Brown at his back and the likelihood of a 60% turnout? The world’s his oyster.

Would his association with Bush affect his chances? No. The UK’s left are like the old three bar-grill fire your grandmother used to have – they generate a great deal of heat and very little light. Provided he throws them a bone now and again, such as the abolition of the ancient and noble country pursuit of fox hunting, they will be happy, and won’t make too much of a protest. Blair is at heart a neoconservative straight from the bowels of the American Enterprise Institute. It could be fair to say that, if Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had been actively looking for a model on how to overstretch the armed services, they could have looked to the volume of engagements British forces have undertaken since 1997. As a committed Atlanticist who thinks his country’s interests are best served by being America’s closest ally, it is fair to say that many Brits make the critical mistake of confusing the vast majority of Americans with the tiny minority who comprise the neocons – very few have ever heard of Pat Buchanan, for example. But, as with Bush, the public can protest and be damned, for they are both elitists. There will be no heeding any cries of ‘Troops Out’!

He will not lose office over Iraq, no matter the cost. No matter the bloody cost.