Blair Dead in the Water?

April 29, 2004, Thursday

Blair dead in the water? No such luck

I am all in favour of optimism, but this is ridiculous. There are people at Westminster, people I respect, people who have seen governments rise and fall, who now think that Tony Blair’s political life is moving to its close.

If Cherie hasn’t measured up the curtains for Dunspinnin, she had better get going, they say. It’s all over for Blair, said a political commentator to me the other day. He’s not just toast. He’s crumbs. He’s not just history. He’s biology. He’s physics.

Look, people keep saying to me, at the way he governs the country. He tells the entire Labour Party that he is not going to have a referendum on the European constitution, not over his dead body. No fewer than 319 Labour MPs are gestapoed through the lobbies to vote against such a consultation; and then Blair comes back from staring at the stars in Bermuda, and announces the most amazing U-turn since Emerson Fittipaldi skidded on an oil-slick at the Monaco hairpin.

He persuades his poor lobotomised backbenchers to support invasion of a Third World country on the ground that said country possesses WMD, capable of being fired at us within 45 minutes, and expects them to remain loyal to him when it turns out that (a) Saddam Hussein boasted no WMD more fearful than a tub of superannuated taramasalata, and (b) the CIA had expressly warned the British Government that the 45-minute claim was a load of old cobblers.

He presides over a total disintegration of the immigration and asylum system, and then makes a panicky speech, at the last minute, in which he seems belatedly to embrace Tory ideas about restricting access to benefits for those who are not really in fear of persecution. After seven years of massively expanding the public sector with form-fillers, clipboard-toters and quota-checkers, he holds an emergency summit to work out why 60 per cent of the population do not think public services have improved. Doh!

He’s lost the plot, people tell me. He’s drifting rudderless in the wide Sargasso Sea of New Labour’s ideological vacuum. According to no less an authority than Peter Oborne, political editor of The Spectator, the Prime Minister has been squinting at the calendar and wondering exactly when, this summer, he might suddenly disappear – poof – and reinvent himself as helmsman of, say, the European Commission.

Well, my friends, I am all for looking on the bright side of life. I have bet on the Grand National. I have put money into chocolate vending machines in Underground stations, even though this is a wholly academic exercise. Such is my congenital optimism that, the other day, I chained my bicycle to the railings outside one of our great stations, in the fond belief that, when I returned, it would still be there.

Of course I lost both wheels, but that act of credulity is nothing compared to the collective optimistic mania that is sweeping some sections of the Tory media. You’re wrong, folks! Put away the obits. Get rid of the bunting.

Blair will not go this summer, and no, he will not go before the next general election. Here are at least three reasons. The first is that it is not in the nature of politicians to surrender their own political lives; they are like wasps in jam jars. They buzz on long after hope has gone. They go on because it is in their nature to do so, because all political careers must end in tears, and it is profoundly in the public interest that they should do, in the sense that politicians will work hardest and best if they know that their only exit is to be terminated in the Darwinian struggle for popular affection and interest.

He will not go because there are scores of his backbenchers who know that they were not propelled to Westminster because their electorates fell in love with their own blue eyes. They know that Tony won their seats, because he offered Middle England a kind of Tory Lite party that seemed economically sensible without some of the nastiness that they had come to associate with my great party.

They also know that they have absolutely no practical way of disposing of Blair, because a leadership election would necessitate the votes of 80 MPs, a quarter of the parliamentary party, and there are not enough of them with the guts to trigger it.

And the third reason why Blair will stay and fight is of course that there is no one to take his place. He is New Labour, for better or worse. Straw? Pshaw. Blunkett? Junk it. As for Gordon Brown, and the idea that the baton could be smoothly passed to the Chancellor – cheated of his birthright for a mess of seared tuna at Granita – it is fanciful. Even if it were possible, technically, to effect such a transition, it would be an insult to democracy, not least because Brown, like so many other Labour members, sits for a Scottish seat, and is currently passing laws for England when English MPs have no say over those questions in Scotland, and above all when he, Gordon, has no say over those questions in Scotland. I would go so far as to say that the West Lothian question is now so acute that no sitting Scottish MP has a hope of becoming prime minister.

It is Blair, Blair and Blair alone who personifies New Labour, the gigantic neo-SDP envisaged by Roy Jenkins. That is why there is not the earthliest prospect of him going; and that is why he will soldier on, with his troops becoming ever more despairing. His strategy was triangulation: to push the Tories out to the Right, and to destroy Old Labour. He has ended up falling between two stools. His party has fallen out of love with him, and many are already mentally in opposition (so why not give them the extra satisfaction of formal opposition as well?); but they will keep him as their leader, and he will not go.

If I’m wrong, as I have pledged before, I will eat my hat. Joyfully.