Blair v Brown: The lowdown

September 11, 2006 at 7:24 pm (UK)

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In an exclusive guest blog for Soul Bean Café, The Westminster Mole offers an insiders’ view of the ongoing tussle between the Blair and Brown camps


“A handful of ministers decided to write letters to Blair asking him to resign. Unsurprisingly, he said no and they resigned before the Prime Minister could sack them.”


The week before last, Tony Blair gave an extremely ill-judged interview to the London Times. He basically refused, again, to name a date for his departure and said that all those calling for his resignation should shut up and take him at his word that he’s going to go and leave ample time for his successor.

The Prime Minister said this after an unseasonably tough few weeks, during which he was seen by many to be offering yet more craven support for George Bush and the Israeli government during the conflict with Lebanon. To make things worse this all carried on into the parliamentary recess. Blair’s interview came just as most MPs returned from holiday.

They already had post bags full of vitriol about Lebanon from constituents of all political persuasions and the man responsible for much of this was blithely stating that any discussion about when he might quit was ridiculous and bad for the country (always a tricky one to float that).

Most MPs look forward to the summer being a time of intensive constituency-based work, a holiday of a week or two, and a selection of national policy issues that are little more challenging than whether Big Brother really has “gone too far this time”. When they come back from recess, they talk to each other. A lot. They do this because talking forms a large part of their job.

More bad press for UK foreign policy (synonymous with Blair), promising – yet, for Labour, hardly disastrous – opinion polls putting the Conservative opposition leader David Cameron’s popularity ahead of Blair’s (and his Chancellor and rival Gordon Brown’s for that matter) and post-vacation blues, reignited the Westminster village in a way that took any control of the news agenda straight out of Number 10’s hands. A crisis ensued.

For Labour supporters, this is where it gets really depressing. Again, to defuse things, the secretary of state for environment and rural affairs David Milliband announced Blair would be gone in a year. A handful of ministers decided to write letters to the PM asking him to resign. Unsurprisingly, he said no and they resigned before the Prime Minister could sack them. About 70 other MPs (enough to trigger a leadership contest) signed a letter saying that they were glad that Blair, through Milliband, had said he will not stay more than a year and that we should all get back to the business of doing what we were elected to do. It was hardly a ringing endorsement but it was a welcome post-holiday reality check.

The whole issue has been played out in the press as a battle of Blair v Brown. This is wrong and more than a little lazy. It is more a question of how and indeed when he is going to go. Everyone knows that Tony has become a liability and the game is up. He is supported by a group of loyal and noisy friends – just like the Chancellor – but for the vast majority of Labour MPs, regardless of who they are instinctively incline to support, the debate rests on when and how he should go.

Most of them realise that foreign policy has often coloured a reasonable domestic performance and although they are behind a revived Tory Party in the polls, the lead is hardly massive (nor indeed sufficient to gain power) and Cameron, whose deeply held regard for the way Blair operates could land him in trouble later, has no policies to speak of rather than going round getting photographed being nice to ‘the ethnics’.

Given all this, a descent into backstabbing and infighting (beyond the normal) is the last thing any MP wants. Gordon Brown knows this even though he came perilously close to looking like the Thane of Fife wielding the knife last week. He avoided this – just – and happily for him has almost certainly extracted a precise window during which Blair will announce his resignation.

This is about as much as he could have hoped for. The slightly resigned nature in which Blair was speaking at Quinton Kynaston School in north London last week made that clear. He even sounded a bit teary. Nevertheless, Brown is still mistrustful of the Blair hardcore who seem determined to put a credible alternative in place for next May (John Reid? too angry; Charles Clarke? too bitter; Alan Milburn? – Milburn’s friends wouldn’t even vote for him as PM). He also has to convince many of his fellow Labour MPs that what they have lost in Blair’s undoubted charisma and electoral appeal will be matched under his leadership. The challenge now is whether Gordon feels confident enough or, more likely, willing to hold a robust leadership election to exorcise the ghost of Blair and leave him with sufficient momentum to beat the Tories’ Blair MkII at the next general election.

This article was written by The Westminster Mole exclusively for Soul Bean Café

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2 Comments

  1. Robin Amer said,

    Hello-

    My name is Robin Amer and I’m a producer for Open Source (www.radioopensource.org) an American public radio show based in Boston. I’m writing you because we’re doing a program this coming Wednesday about PM Blair and his impending resignation. We read your blog post above and found it very interesting. I was hoping you might be available by phone later today or tomorrow (Tuesday) to talk with me more about your ideas and opinions on this subject, and about possibly being a guest on our show.

    If you’re interested, please get back to me. I can be reached at the number below.

    Thanks so much. I look forward to speaking with you.

    best,
    Robin Amer

    Robin Amer
    Producer
    Open Source
    http://www.radioopensource.org
    617-497-8097

  2. Hilary said,

    Hello –
    I came across this blog while trying to find out the exact date that Blair might resign, an event I have been looking forward to for over five years. I would love to know when ministers in general realised he had become a liability. I have been unable to vote Labour in the last two elections, finding Blair a craven, posturing, bad actor whose prescriptive social policies, conviction of his own rectitude, presidential style of government and embarrassingly skewed relationship with the war criminal George Bush should render him terrifying to the clear-thinking individual. It must be very depressing for MPs at Westminster who recognise this problem, and can see its consequences coming a mile off, to find that any attempt to do something about it ends up with them having to resign instead.
    This is a fascinating insight into the working lives of MPs. Might there be a second installment?
    Hilary Barker
    Writer
    http://www.hilsbarker.com

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