Time for Blair to step down

Tony Blair has verbal gifts. One of them is understatement. There had been “a certain wear and tear” in his position as prime minister, he told John Humphrys on Wednesday.
Wear and tear? Public anger and mistrust about him, focused on Iraq, has been devastating to his election campaign. It has not been ramped up by the press or arrogant broadcasters. It has been present on every street in every constituency.

Eight years ago, almost every one of those New Labour seats won in unexpected parts of the country was won in part because of Blair. None of us knows what will happen when the results start to tumble through on Friday night but only a fool would suggest that Labour is not going to lose seats, and probably quite a lot of them. Every Labour seat lost will have been lost because of Blair. What goes around comes around? If you are a Labour politician turfed out of your job, or who has hung on by a frightening small majority, you may feel less philosophical than that.

But this is only where it begins. Every seat saved on the edge has been by a combination of frantic local campaigning and the intervention of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Every time the prime minister seemed to be sinking, he arrived to help. His support for Blair over the Iraq war — almost beyond the call of duty — deflected the fire on the single most dangerous day of the campaign, when the attorney general’s legal advice was published.

After that, there was a view that enough had been done, and that Blair would be accompanied in the final stage of the campaign by Cherie. Yet with another soldier’s death and Iraq refusing to shuffle off the stage, that plan was hurriedly unpicked and the chancellor brought back to act as the human shield. Throughout this campaign, Iraq has been bloodily waving its hands, centre-stage, right up to Wednesday’s deadly bombing.

Blair came into this election full of hope for a third term, keen to sell a renewed domestic vision to a country he thought had had enough of old arguments about foreign affairs. It hasn’t worked out like that. He has been defensive, a fatally wounded leader. Instead of him protecting the party, the party has protected him, at serious cost to itself. Anyone who now suggests Labour’s victory can be seen as a personal victory for Blair is a sad fantasist.

The question is not whether he gives way to Brown, but when. There are two extreme views. The first is that he should resign within weeks, acknowledging gracefully the damage done by Iraq to the party and to the government. The second is that, having promised to serve a full term, he should do just that, staying until 2009 and handing over just before the next general election. Between the extremes there is a three-and-a-half-year gap.

What is clearly needed now is a timetable for action, to coin a phrase. We need to know when Blair will announce the leadership contest and when he intends to hand over. In theory, he could say nothing and set about trying to earn a new legacy. In practice, he knows this is impossible. For that risks the early part of Labour’s third term being wasted on yet more bickering about the Blair-Brown saga. Make no mistake, until the timing of the succession is clear, the media will interpret everything through the prism of leadership wrangles.

At issue is what kind of government a third-term Labour one will be. On the domestic front, there is less of a gap between Blair and Brown over health and education reform than there used to be. Both men think targets have gone far enough. There is clearly little energy left in Labour for further market-mimicking changes.

When it comes to overseas issues, Blair has so little support at home for his alliance with George W Bush that he would find it hard to make much progress on the international stage. And on Europe, even if Britain does go through a referendum on the constitution, it would be easier by far for the more sceptical Brown to win it than for Blair — if you think “trust” has been an issue in the last few weeks, wait until the referendum.

To the extent, therefore, that the third administration would move forward on the “progressive consensus”, then Brown has become a better guarantor of that already. But there is another huge issue that only he can take forward. It is democracy, the Constitution and trust in politics. Brown’s promise to revive parliamentary and Cabinet government are the precondition for rebuilding faith in the system. After the idiosyncratic style of the Blair years, the country desperately needs a return to a more conventional democracy. It is the job that Brown still has in him; he needs time to complete it.

Labour also needs time to rebuild itself. A stream of party candidates report there just aren’t enough activists this time round, and many of those who do turn out are disillusioned. Labour will face local elections again in May next year, and presumably all those voters who are now insisting they won’t vote for Labour while Blair is leader won’t have changed their minds. Yet the party cannot afford to lose more local councillors and erode its base in the country still further.

This means the best time for a hand-over would begin with an announcement by the time of this year’s party conference that Blair, flushed with success from the British presidency of the EU and leadership of the G8, intends to stand down. He could then bequeath the party to Brown in time to win back support at those local elections next year. More important, there would be adequate time for Brown to notch up some firm achievements by the time of the next general election, when he will surely be facing a more plausible Conservative opposition. It would be the first successful leadership transition in the government for many, many years.

Rather than casting round for some new wheeze to contribute to his legacy, Blair needs to recognise he has a perfectly good legacy in front of him. To have won a third election victory and then to pass on the party to someone who can secure a fourth — that’s something for the history books isn’t it? — Â

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