Nine months ago a leaked Downing Street memo mapped out Tony Blair’s exit strategy. “As TB enters his final phase he needs to be focusing way beyond the finishing line, not looking at it,” wrote New Labour consigliere Philip Gould. “He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won’t even play that last encore. In moving towards the end he must focus on the future.”
When Blair finally set a date for his departure the crowds, it seemed, wanted less, not more. His announcement came after local elections left Labour with its lowest number of local councilors in thirty years and its worst result in Scotland in half a century. Interest rates are going up; Iraq is heading for anarchy. Not only is the audience not calling for an encore. If this were amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo, the Executioner would have dragged him off long ago.
The manner of Blair’s departure is illuminating. He said he would quit more than a year ago, leaving pundits to quibble only about the timing. That makes him the first British leader in living memory to step down without having been ousted by his own party or the voters. In truth, he started jumping even as he was being pushed. Ever since he moved into 10 Downing Street, his next-door neighbor Chancellor Gordon Brown has been trying to evict him and take his place. Once Blair followed Bush into Iraq, the public increasingly wanted him out too. For the last few years Blair has not so much been exercising power as hanging on to it.
These two pressures–Iraq’s crisis and Brown’s careerism–could produce a turning point in the war. It is singularly the most unpopular thing Blair has done and the policy with which he is most closely and personally identified. The one pledge that Brown could deliver that would make the transition worthy of the name is to withdraw from Iraq immediately. Britain’s departure would remove one of the few fig leaves remaining for Bush and give further momentum to the political inevitability of withdrawal. A new leader is coming, and a new foreign policy is needed. Brown arrives, the troops leave. It has not just logic but symmetry.
Such a move would certainly be popular in Britain. A recent BBC poll showed 60 percent of Britons are now opposed to the invasion. More than half said that “given their experiences of the war in Iraq,” they would not trust a British government that said it needed to take military action because a country posed a direct threat to national security. Yet with both main parties supporting the occupation, this view has yet to find effective political expression. Brown could change all that and in one stroke shift his image from dour Scot to populist hero.
Sadly this is unlikely to happen. The rivalry between Blair and Brown is not political but personal–the product of mid-life crisis and thwarted professional ambition. It has as much to do with politics as Biggie and Tupac’s rap wars had to do with music. In the words of Ice T: “It’s a personal beef that got out of whack.”