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.”
As the co-architect of New Labour, Brown is implicated in every important aspect of the Blair agenda. It is an agenda defined as much by what it opposed–the left–as what it effectively was–a government of the European center-right. True, it had progressive elements. New Labour vastly increased investment in health and education, ushered in the minimum wage, civil unions for same-sex couples, devolution for Scotland and Wales and reduced child poverty. But all this came with caveats and within a context designed to limit the impact of their agenda if not undermine it altogether. Health and education were partly privatized, university tuition fees were introduced, the minimum wage was set too low, economic inequalities increased.
Philosophically, the Iraq War was always aberrant with the stated aims of the Blair project. New Labour presented itself as a modernizing force. But just as Britons were recovering from their sense of colonial entitlement to rule the world with benevolence and bombs, he pursued a foreign policy mired in imperial hubris. Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan–these foreign military adventures made Thatcher look like a peacenik and Queen Victoria seem like a stay-at-home monarch.
Politically, however, Iraq was consistent with Blair’s strategic thinking. It exemplified his tendencies to alienate natural allies, rely on spin, attack the liberal media and establish distance from the Labour Party, in whose name he governed. It confirmed his arrogance and isolation. It has been emblematic of the way he has dealt with pensioners, students, asylum seekers and Muslims.
The country clearly wants a change of direction; in all likelihood it is about to get a change of director. The main beneficiaries of the inevitable cynicism arising from this are the Conservatives, who enjoyed their highest share of the vote since 1992–the last time they won at the polls–in the local elections. Brown is even less popular than Blair and, according to polls, would lose in an election against the new Tory leader, David Cameron.
One would think that the instinct for self-preservation alone would encourage the Labour Party either to impose its will on a Brown premiership or force a challenge in the primary. A left candidate, John McDonnell, did come forward but conceded defeat after he failed to get the backing of a sufficient number of MPs to enter the election. This is bad news for everybody. Brown needs a challenger; Labour is in desperate need of a debate about its future and purpose. The fact that it won’t get one is yet more evidence of the Blair legacy.
Having dismantled the internal levers of democracy within the party, Labour has been transformed into little more than an electoral machine. Brown is poised not for an election but a coronation. The crowds turned up for a morality play; they are witnessing a tragedy.