General Election 2005 Post Mortem, Pt II: Oops, we did it again

by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2005

This may qualify as the shortest political honeymoon in history. Eight days after Labour’s third successive victory, and the media – and seemingly much of the public – is determined to ensure Mr Blair’s nose remains bloodied. Is this fair?

After all, the history books will record this unprecedented hat-trick, and attribute its achievement largely to the Prime Minister’s personal endeavours. And they will be right. Mr Blair has a shrewd understanding of the foibles of so-called ‘middle England’ (which made his tragic error of judgement over Iraq all the more baffling), an historic lacuna for the Labour Party. His power, though, is draining; maybe not as fast as the commentariat might like, but there is a visible dimming. The if of his departure has become the when.

There are two intriguing facets of this perpetual grumpiness with Mr Blair.

First is the transparent guilt felt by that section of the liberal-left who spent four years damning the Prime Minister and all his works, before capitulating as soon as an election was called ‘for fear of something worse’. To assuage their consciences, they now, once again, feel safe flexing their muscles, their small thrusting jabs attempting to correct their craven failure to deliver the knock-out punch Mr Blair merited on 5th May.

For instance, The Independent newspaper has propelled the campaign for proportional representation (or ‘fair votes’ to give PR its PR-friendly name) to the forefront of the wilting post-election agenda. Well, good on them. However, why this crusade now? Surely it would have done more good to highlight the crass stupidity of the electoral system during the campaign, the better to extract some promise of reform from Mr Blair? Instead, after a few weeks’ sound and fury, we can expect business as usual from the Labour-Tory duopoly whose desire to maintain binary politics so well suits their own interests, and the media’s reductive preference for simplicity.

This was evident from the Prime Minister’s asinine remarks at his monthly press conference. They are worth quoting, if only to demonstrate the fusion of political genius and intellectual vapidity which symbolises Mr Blair’s thinking:

“I also have to give you my frank view that if this was a straight Labour-Tory fight, I don’t think that there is any doubt about what the outcome of the election would have been. I think if it had been Labour versus Lib Dems it would have been the same. It might even have been, if it had been Tory versus Lib Dems, they would have gone Tory. I don’t think you can tell, in other words, that the existence of the third party with this amount of vote means that people were undecided about the Government.”

Note the careful use of the phrase, “my frank view” – here he is, speaking to us ungagged, a straight-talker, shooting from the hip, one of the guys: to be fair, nobody does it better. (Certainly not Gordon Brown – but more of him later.) But what follows is an utterance of excruciatingly risible logic. We do not have a two-party state: to pretend we do – even for the sake of argument – is disingenuous. And for a Prime Minister so committed to the choice agenda, Mr Blair displays a remarkable talent for cutting down options which are at all inconvenient.

But this general tetchiness towards Mr Blair (which he appears increasingly to reciprocate) is not just the liberal left heaving a collective “D’oh!” of pseudo-remorse at finding Mr Blair still smiling from the steps of Number 10. It is the clear demonstration that nothing will change, despite the finely honed and honeyed words, “I have listened, and I have learned.” One week on, and we have the usual botched reshuffle, a populist knee-jerk reaction against ‘hoodies’, and some misplaced spin (Department of Productivity indeed! New Labour, Newspeak). No more glad confident morn, just some tired old dusk.

Mr Blair has always seen his enduring legacy to be the entrenchment of the progressive consensus, consigning the forces of conservatism to the dustbin of history. That his mantra of ‘investing in public services’ has become a commonplace of the current economic narrative shows where he has succeeded.

Where he has failed – at least in part because I don’t think he cared enough to try – is to tackle head on the socially conservative agenda epitomised by that squalid journal of rabid fulmination, the Daily Mail. The more Mr Blair tacks right to ensure he cedes no ground to their unpleasant Little England agenda, the further he is lured into an unwinnable right-wing turf war, in which asylum seekers, crime and immigration are maliciously melded symptoms of society’s ills. He can never go far enough to satisfy the authoritarians, and will always go too far to win back liberals like me.

To turn now to the second fascinating facet of this exhibition of grouchiness towards Mr Blair. People are bored with him: this is why US Presidents are term-limited. The feeling is especially acute in Mr Blair’s case because of his pre-announced departure. So we’re already looking towards the new: the sphinx within a riddle, the great unfathomed incapacity that is Gordon Brown. To some, he is Labour’s soon-to-be saviour, the man who will be king, and the sooner the better. To others, this dour Scottish Presbyterian will antagonise the English middle classes, while simultaneously disappointing Labour’s left-wingers who have projected their hopes onto his brooding tabula rasa.

Mr Blair’s post-election honeymoon has been brief; Mr Brown cannot expect his post-accession honeymoon to be much longer. He has the profound disadvantage of having a familiar face and a concealed personality. For a man who has been so much in the limelight for so long still to be an unknown quantity is cause for concern for those who will him to win. He will inherit a party which has, over the last decade, been ripped inside out – not least by Mr Brown himself – and held fragilely together by the mesmeric Mr Blair. The enchantment is now broken.

But the replacement of the current Prime Minister by the co-author of the New Labour project will both exacerbate the Government’s vulnerability, and bring New Labour towards a natural sense of closure. Will Mr Brown have the energy – and the voters the patience – to accept yet another Labour re-invention? Or will they show scant gratitude for Mr Brown’s dogged understudying?

Mr Blair’s great success has been to fuse proto-Thatcherism and anti-Toryism into the compelling ‘New Labour’ blend. Mr Brown will have a far harder task: to continue the job in a harsher economic climate, against a more cynical media backdrop, and with a reduced majority. This requires a new set of leadership skills, capable of reaching out across political divides, opening up government to greater scrutiny, and projecting a fresh but tangible vision. This will be Mr Brown’s greatest challenge yet, and the one for which he is least well-equipped to succeed. Ironically, the Labour politician who would best be able to respond the next four years’ vicissitudes is the man living on borrowed time, Mr Blair.