Before the general election in 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would step down before the next one, due in 2010 at the latest. Since then, his days in Downing Street have been numbered. The trouble is, nobody has known what that precise number would be.
For the past five years, Chancellor and heir apparent Gordon Brown has been trying to pry that figure from the Labour leader by forcing him to set a date. By all accounts the two men loathe each other. When Blair returned from vacation in late August to say he wouldn’t set a timetable for his departure, discontent spread to some of his supporters in Parliament. After a spate of midlevel resignations and two tempestuous meetings with Brown, Blair said this September’s Labour conference would be his last.
When it comes to dysfunctional relationships lived in public, Blair and Brown have shown about as much class as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (no relation) without even a scintilla of the entertainment value. What is worse, for the last decade an indecent portion of the British left has become embroiled in this quarrel as though the two men’s career paths represent principled ideological differences. Midlife crises have been elevated to affairs of state; petulance masquerades as principle.
Two principal factors have brought Blair’s premiership to this point–his foreign policy and the presence of a new, viable Conservative leader. Both raise serious and urgent questions about Labour’s direction; the trouble is that Brown has so far proven himself incapable of answering them.
The week Blair was first elected, in 1997, he told Labour MPs, "We are not the master now. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people." Within five years he had become a servant of the Bush Administration.
The war in Iraq has always been hugely unpopular; the obstruction of an early cease-fire in Lebanon was even more so. The week the feud between Brown and Blair was at its most intense coincided with the one in which Britain suffered its greatest number of casualties in Afghanistan and NATO conceded that the mission there could fail without more troops.
A poll in September revealed that almost three-quarters of the British public (73 percent) believe that "the British Government’s foreign policy–especially its support for the invasion of Iraq and refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire by Israel in the recent war against Hezbollah in Lebanon–has significantly increased the risk of terrorist attacks on Britain."
Moreover, almost two-thirds (62 percent) agree that "in order to reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks on Britain the Government should change its foreign policy, in particular by distancing itself from America, being more critical of Israel and declaring a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq."
So long as the opposition Tory party, which also backed the war, had no chance of winning, none of this mattered because the electorate had nowhere else to go and no reason to go there.
But after a decade in the wilderness choosing leaders whose worldview could be hung from a handlebar mustache, the Tories finally picked an electable leader in David Cameron. To be fair to Cameron’s predecessors, the reason they had so much trouble distinguishing themselves from Blair is that Blair had moved so far to the right they had little room to maneuver. What Cameron realized was that if he couldn’t run on his politics he could always win through his personality. Here was a Conservative leader, not yet 40, who rubbed his wife’s pregnant stomach lovingly on stage and cycled to work and had taken copious amounts of drugs–or at least he wouldn’t say he hadn’t, which in Britain amounts to the same thing.
With these credentials, Cameron only needed to make slight nods toward moderation. Morally speaking, he was starting from a very low base. He said the Tories were wrong to support apartheid and oppose the release of Nelson Mandela. More significant, on the fifth anniversary of September 11, he said: "We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America."
His stock soared. For the first time in nine years it looks like Labour could lose the next election. It is clear Blair is the problem, but it is no less obvious that Brown does not provide the solution. Personality-wise he does not hold a candle to Cameron. One recent focus group echoed many polls in describing Brown as tired, dishonest and treacherous.
Recent polls show that roughly two-thirds of the electorate believe Labour is not working in their interest, has run out of ideas and is moving in the wrong direction. As the co-architect of New Labour, Brown not only helped decide that direction but has pledged to continue it. "You taught our party–you saw it right, you saw it clearly and you saw it through–that we can’t just be for one section of society, we’ve got to be for all of society," he told Blair from the conference podium.
The most effective and popular policy change Brown could propose, which almost certainly would secure his victory at the polls, is a break with Blair over Iraq. Instead, he has praised Iraq’s "liberation" and has promised to continue supporting it.
The leader will be chosen through a ballot of party members, trade unions and MPs. The party’s left has another candidate but is too weak to mount an effective challenge to Brown; the Blairite wing may yet put up a candidate who will propose even less in the way of change. Next spring we are set not for Brown’s election but his coronation.
"Kings were put to death long before 21 January 1793," wrote Albert Camus, referring to Louis XVI’s execution. "But regicides of earlier times and their followers were interested in attacking the person, not the principle, of the king. They wanted another king, and that was all. It never occurred to them that the throne could remain empty forever."
Labour is poised to change kings; what it needs to do is abolish the monarchy.