LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair will not step down until late June. But, with his announcement that he is leaving politics after ten years as the leader of Britain’s government, the national media has already shifted over to speculation about the past-his-sell-by-date prime minister’s determination to make a fortune on the international lecture circuit — “The Blair Rich Project,” the BBC has dubbed it — and on his successor.
Blair’s slow exit strategy should benefit his long-time man in waiting, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who will spend the coming week’s campaigning for a coronation.
Brown hopes to secure the Labour Party leadership without a fight and then assume the prime ministership on Blair’s exit. If he does so — as is likely — it will be the end of one of the most extended periods of understudy in British political history.
Brown, who famously cut a deal in the mid-199Os to let Blair serve first as prime minister, inherits a difficult circumstance. Indeed, the new issue of Britain’s Spectator magazine features a cover headline, “Over to You, Gordon,” illustrated by Blair flashing a middle finger at Brown.
While Britain itself is more prosperous and functional than when Blair and Brown took over after 18 years of Conservative misrule by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the willingness of Blair to act as “George Bush’s poodle” in foreign affairs has taken its political toll not just from the sitting prime minister but from his Labour Party — which is at its lowest point in the polls in decades.
So determined is Blair’s party to distance itself from him that, on the day the prime minister announced he was retiring, his “New Labour, New Britain” slogan was struck from the party website. It was replaced with the word “Labour” and the traditional red rose of the left.
But it will take more than a rose to change the fortunes of a party that has seen its appeal sink since Blair signed on for George “I will miss you, Tony” Bush’s war of whim.
Even the conservative Times of London ridiculed Blair’s exit with a cartoon that had the prime minister’s teeth forming the letters “I-R-A-Q.”
“I can’t help but feel I’m about to witness the passing of the most gifted British politician of my adult lifetime,” explains journalist Jonathan Freedland, echoing popular sentiment. “And I can’t help but feel that Iraq means he squandered the opportunity those gifts gave him.”
Historian Eric Hobsbawm offers a similar assessment: “Tony Blair, a gifted but unthinking politician perfectly suited to the media age, will be remembered for winning three elections, but failing to build ‘new Labour,’ for Iraq, and — not impossibly — for breaking up the United Kingdom. In spite of a very respectable domestic record, his period of government demoralized Labour’s traditional supporters and antagonized the liberal/progressive educated classes.”
Can Brown, who as the Cabinet member charged with overseeing the economy crafted the budgets that did so much to revitalize education, health care and the infrastructure of Britain, gain popular credit for the Blair government’s domestic successes while distancing himself from its foreign-policy blunders?
“I’d be surprised if he didn’t take some bold initiative,” says Tony Benn, a Labour stalwart who served more than five decades in parliament and was a member of the Cabinets of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan before emerging as the leader of the party’s broad left. “And he would be wise to take it with regard to Iraq.”
Benn, like most Labour Party members, is passionately opposed to Britain’s role in Iraq. Announcing the withdrawal of British troops from what’s left of Bush’s “coalition of the willing” would strengthen Brown’s hand as a contestant for the party leadership, which he must secure in order to serve as prime minister, says Benn, and it would also make him a stronger contender in the next national election.
“For the first time in my life, the public is to the left of what is called a Labour government,” says Benn, who is frequently ranked as one of the most popular and respected figures in British politics. “Brown needs to steer the party to the left if he wants to reconnect with the grassroots, not just the Labour grassroots but the electoral grassroots.”
Benn holds out some small hope for Brown. Unlike Blair, the man who is positioned to be be Britain’s next prime minister has deep roots in the Labour Party’s Scottish heartlands. While Blair’s background was Tory blue, Brown’s is Labour red. And there has always been a sense within Labour circles that Brown is a bit more committed to socialism — with its emphasis on economic equality, social justice and peace — than to the neo-liberal economic policies and nec-conservative international policies of Blair and his “New Labour” experiment.
Brown seemed to signal his lean to the left with a high-profile declaration that he would like to style himself as something of a British Bobby Kennedy — a man of the establishment determined to stand up for the disenfranchised.
“Unlike Blair, Gordon Brown does have good Labour roots,” says Benn. “He understands socialism in ways that Blair never did and I think he respects the traditions of the party a little more. His writings and some of his speeches certainly suggest that he has more depth. But, after ten years of New Labour, in which Brown was an active if perhaps not always enthusiastic participant, he is going to have signal that he intends to set a new course.”
Benn remains especially dubious about Brown’s corporate-friendly economic strategies — even if they are paired with significant social investment — and about whether the potential prime minister really will break with Bush on Iraq and other foreign policy issues. As such, Benn supports efforts by the Labour left to mount a leadership challenge to Brown. A pair of parliamentarians, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, have both announced challengers. Meacher has a good deal of support from left-wing members of the party caucus in parliament, while McDonnell has obtained a decent measure of backing from union members and grassroots party members. McDonnell’s book, “Another World Is Possible: A Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism” has been widely circulated in party circles. As of now, however, it is not clear whether either man has the necessary support from Labour’s parliamentary caucus to force a leadership fight
Even if a leadership vote is scheduled, neither Meacher nor McDonnell — who have struggled to reach agreement that would see the weaker of the two stand down in order to strengthen the left’s challenge — is likely to upset Brown. The power of incumbency is strong, and the challengers do not have Brown’s stature. But Benn hopes that Labour will see a leadership fight. “It will do Brown good to have to campaign for the leadership,” he says. “Blair leaves as a man who is broadly seen as having broken faith with Labour and the country. Fighting and winning a leadership vote would, I think, help Brown to establish himself as something more than a Blairite — which, of course, he needs to do.”
John Nichols’ new book is