Tony Blair: defiant and deluded

Striding through the smoke and flames threatening to torch the new Labour project, like a cornered action hero attempting a final comeback, Tony Blair recently showed once again why he is the most resilient politician in Britain.

After days of coded revolt from his heir apparent, British Finance Minister Gordon Brown, and less coded revolt from other MPs, he faced down his party with a powerful performance at his Downing Street press conference and at an evening session with MPs.

He was direct and persuasive, as he so often is when in deep trouble, picking- off critics with a display that left no doubt about his desire to serve at least another year — and suggested, too, that he may be able to secure it despite the forces now ranged against him.

Blair’s description of the dangers that await his party should it fall into outright civil war was elegant, convincing and correct. Planting himself firmly at what he called ”the reasonable end of the market”, he pointed out the real risks of retreating into Labour’s past and the absurdity of public division. Yet this hides a huge sleight of hand.

Blair conflated his own survival with that of new Labour when the reality is that his connection with the government is finite and diminishing. Dipping into the delusional, Blair referred to his own role in ”the second stage of National Health Service reform” when the first has hardly begun and referred to a series of issues that are no longer for him to decide. Neither could he explain why his survival is needed to avoid party civil war, when some would say his insistence on staying is the cause. He evaded responsibility for Labour’s current weakness and ignored the clear need for a transition to a new leader before renewal can begin. Above all, he left open the question of what he hopes to achieve as prime minister in the next year, which Brown could not.

Between them, Blair and Brown could bring calamity to Labour. It is imperative that they resolve their differences over how power will pass from one to the other. This week Blair made his offer, promising to give Brown time to make use of the job before the next election. That may indicate a departure at the start of the summer recess next year. But it remains to be seen whether Brown is prepared to wait that long or believes the prime minister’s promises any more. Since past dates have been missed, he has good grounds for fearing that Blair may change his mind if his position strengthens. That is why Brown’s demand for a date, witnessed formally but in private, is reasonable.

Both men will have an instinctive reaction to the current situation, and both should fight it. Blair always responds to trouble with brilliant defiance, taking his difficulties as proof of his indespensibility. Brown has always reacted to that defiance with dismay and a semi-private disconnection from the rest of the government, which only weakens his own cause. Nothing but harm will come from a further year of empty glory from the prime minister and sullen discontent from Brown. Blair must accept that the time for defiance is over and Brown must realise that the moment for real cooperation has begun. An orderly transition should be a process, not a single event; it should be swift and it needs to start now. Brown needs scope to prepare the ground for power, working across the range of government activity with the approval of the prime minister. In turn, Brown must resist the temptation to engineer a Labour Götterdämmerung by encouraging a revolt that will only undermine his inheritance. But he can only be expected to do this if Blair accepts that his time on the stage is nearly over. He is still a brilliant performer, but his show has reached the end of its run. — Â

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