Nov 6 2005
Blair won’t jump . . . and he’s made sure he can’t be pushedSimon Jenkins
Westminster is not always a village. Sometimes it is a tank of piranha fish. The tiniest drop of blood and the place boils with teeth and savagery. Within seconds a victim lies at the bottom, stripped to a skeleton. Peace returns.
It is ludicrous that David Blunkett, a politician of some stature, can have vanished overnight not because of his various ministerial failings but for a trivial failure to comply with the ministerial code. It was equally absurd that Peter Mandelson should have vanished for the same reason. These people enjoyed the prime minister’s total support yet evaporated, allegedly “without a stain on their character”.Britain’s political ethos is wholly eccentric. A minister may take Britain to war on a lie, blow billions on health computers and tax credits, waste grotesque sums on ID cards and Eurofighters. For all this he may walk down Whitehall with his head held high. But if he fails to declare a mortgage loan or a two-bit consultancy the Furies descend in synthetic rage and drive him from office. Cause a fatal pile-up on the M1 and you may leave your insurer’s name; stop one minute on a yellow line and you are in the slammer.
Last week’s events showed yet again the poverty of British democratic accountability. The cliché holds that the personal trustworthiness of ministers is the guarantor of their public competence. Private trust is code for public trust. This is humbug. The job of parliament and the press is to scrutinise a minister’s public duties. Their private ones are no collateral. British ministers are nowadays deposed, usually in a theatrical frenzy of pavements and doorways, because the political community has abandoned its day job. It scrutinises the executive by media proxy.
Last week MPs passed, albeit by just one vote, Charles Clarke’s latest dreadful anti-terrorism bill. Elected Labour MPs openly excused their voting for the bill on the grounds that the unelected lords would vote it down for them. Meanwhile, as if to show off their virility, these MPs contrived (with Tony Blair’s help) to kill off Blunkett. His job had been to push through a much-needed reform of the benefits system and pensions. Yet he had to go, said the frenzied ones, “ because the frenzy was making it impossible for him to do his job”.
The frenzy concerned a relatively minor breach in a ministerial code that is so full of hypocrisy as to be laughable. (It requires, for instance, that all appointments and awards be granted “on merit”.) While Blunkett was being ejected, his colleagues’ fraudulent expense claims for second homes were being revealed in the press to total silence. These people seem no longer to care if Britain is poorly governed. The one thing to which they object is if any of their number besmirches the image of the political game. Never did Shaw speak a truer word, that all professions are conspiracies against the laity.
For some 24 hours after these sessions the denizens of Westminster wander round in a daze, covered in blood and platitude. Television intones that for Blair nothing will ever be the same again. Reporters claim that he is desperately alone, at a turning point in his premiership. The toppled minister is invariably an indispensable friend and support, be it Blunkett, Mandelson, Derry Irvine, Alastair Campbell or Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Hence it must be “an open question” how long Blair can hang on in power. As for that black cloud called Gordon Brown hovering silent over the scene, he is always said to be hovering more black and more silent than ever.
This was by no means the first time that the prime minister has lost his nerve during a politico-media frenzy. Whenever he finds himself playing chicken with the Daily Mail and The Sun, he blinks first. He gets the better only of the BBC. Blair lives and rules by headlines and soundbites. He knows no other form of government. Who did we see last week hauled out of retirement but Campbell, cruising the studios in a whirlwind of spin. It brought a tear to the eye.
I have never doubted that the Blairs would like to occupy Downing Street for as long as they can. At this level of politics ambition is largely a matter of dates. Blair made a bad slip before the last election in promising to step down before the next one, but it was the only dignified thing to say at the time. Margaret Thatcher promised much the same after her 1987 victory. Equally Blair left no doubt whatsoever over his immediate intention. It was “to serve out a full parliament” before going.
For a healthy prime minister to resign early in a parliament with no pressing engagement in the offing would be astonishing. Blair has not only announced his determination to stay but has set out the business that remains to be completed. To leave it unfinished on his desk would be more than a U-turn, it would be an admission of failure, a humiliation. The flurry of new Blair biographies in the bookshops this Christmas (the best from Peter Riddell and Anthony Seldon) all say the same. Blair regards his legacy as incomplete, his vocation unfulfilled. The symphony has yet to move from andante to allegro, let alone to coda.
In other words it is hard to envisage circumstances in which Blair voluntarily steps down from office in the near future. He may be careless of the careers of his colleagues but even the most virulent press frenzy is unlikely to budge him. This means that if Blair is to go and Brown assume the crown, he will have to be pushed.
This is as implausible as voluntary resignation. Labour leaders are near impregnable in office. Unlike the Tories, the party has no tradition of ruthlessness towards its leaders. None has been toppled or even formally challenged in half a century.
A challenge would be even harder today. Not the least of Blair’s modernisations in the mid-1990s was to build a constitutional firewall round the leadership. The power of the union barons and the national executive committee was broken, replaced by an electoral college based on one person, one vote. There is no provision for a “stalking horse” contest, as with the Tories. A challenger must come into the open and secure swift support across all wings of the party against the incumbent. Such a revolt, presumably emanating from Brown, would be resisted by the Blairites and be hugely damaging both to the party nationally and to Brown himself.
None of this seems likely. Blair’s plan requires him to carry forward a programme for a full term. He has committed himself trenchantly to reforming the National Health Service, the benefits system and pensions. He is required politically to disengage the country, and his successor, from Iraq. He must leave Brown in office to get public sector borrowing under control and ensure that the chancellor does not bequeath himself an economic collapse.
At its climax the plan envisages the same sort of electoral Siamese twin act as worked so well in May, except this time with Brown triumphantly installed in Downing Street, presumably at the preceding party conference. That way Brown will still seem electorally fresh, fresher than his Tory challenger, and not tainted by the errors to which his personality may soon fall prey.
Democratic leadership is nowadays appallingly vulnerable. Blair is hardly alone in his travails, witness George W Bush, Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi and Germany’s Schröder/Merkel double act. The only longevity these days lies in authoritarianism, be it in Moscow, Beijing, Havana or Tehran.
Yet the British constitution does retain one authoritarian element: the total power it vests in a prime minister between elections. The only check on that power is the spasmodic eruption of pseudo-scandal, a brief orgy of blood-letting as used to occur between emperorships in ancient Rome. It never lasts. Survival requires only that those involved keep their nerve.
Blair will never be a great prime minister. His intellectual range is too limited, his strategy too obsessed with accreting power to find a creative outlet for it. But his talent as a political tactician should never be underrated. It is awesome. His staying in office through the bulk of this parliament makes sense for himself, his programme, his party and even his successor. It is therefore most likely to happen.