by Stephen Tall on November 10, 2005
Today’s headlines put it pretty bluntly: ‘The beginning of the end’. The politicos’ consensus was that the Government’s surprisingly heavy 31-vote Commons defeat, Mr Blair’s first as Prime Minister, is the first nail in his pre-ordered coffin.
If he is unable to persuade his own backbench MPs that legislation he believes is vital to the security of the realm should become law, then what chance has Mr Blair of winning them over to his market-based health and education reforms? If they are dead in the water, what is to become of Mr Blair’s much-touted ‘legacy agenda’? Put simply: what is the point of Tony Blair any more?
All this is, of course, to under-estimate, to over-state, and to extrapolate.
It under-estimates the magnetic force of Mr Blair’s charisma; which, though weaker than in 1997, still exerts real pull among Labour voters, and the wider, wavering public. Too much has, I think, been read into opinion polls showing overwhelming public support for 90-days’ detention without charge. (The question won’t have been, “Are you a spineless supporter of Al-Qaeda who regards terrorist outrages as a legitimate form of free expression, or do you believe our brave bobbies should be given the essential tools to do their bloody difficult job?” But any reader of a tabloid would have assumed that was their choice.) Yet there can be no doubt that Mr Blair’s stance will have impressed those centre-right, authoritarian-inclined voters who he tempted away from the Tories eight years ago, and whose concerns he so artfully articulates. Witness Mr Brown’s johnny-come-lately endeavour to pander to this powerful bloc’s prejudices.
It over-states the danger Mr Blair is in. This defeat is part of politics natural rhythm, its ebb and flow. Six months ago, after his third election victory, the Prime Minister’s authority was said to be in tatters: his majority had been slashed by a hundred, and it might have been worse but for Gordon Brown’s popularity with Labour’s ‘core’ vote, and a woefully inept Tory campaign. Three months ago – after Mr Blair helped London secure the 2012 Olympics, stood up resolutely to the 7/7 terrorists, and identified himself with Live8’s anti-poverty campaign – he bestrode the world stage, dominated the British political arena. Today, he is written off as a lame duck. What will be written three months from now? That Mr Blair has bested Mr Cameron at the despatch box, and that Tory MPs are already worried by the jittery performance of their inexperienced new leader?
And it extrapolates from one vote, and assumes a trend. Yesterday’s rebellion was large, certainly; but the whips have seen worse. In the last Parliament alone (2001-05), there were four rebellions with larger numbers of dissenters than yesterday’s 49 defiant Labour MPs: on Iraq, top-up fees, foundation hospitals, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some of those who revolted are normally loyal (for instance, the former local government minister, Nick Raynsford) and/or were acutely conscious of the significant Muslim populations in their constituencies (Leicester South’s newly-minted Sir Peter Soulsby). There is considerable ‘churn’ in the rebels among Labour’s ranks. Between 1997 and 2001, 133 Labour MPs rebelled against their Government on 96 separate votes: they did not all do so on every issue. To assume Mr Blair’s ‘legacy agenda’ will not be delivered on the basis of this one civil liberties vote cannot be assumed.
A lot will depend on how smartly the Tory opposition plays its hand. It has two courses open to it. It can, as it did yesterday, shoot the Government down in flames, and revel in the schadenfreude. This destabilises Labour, and boosts the morale of the Conservatives (the vicious mockery of the über-right-wing press notwithstanding). Yet, perversely, this has the effect of lancing the Labour boil: anger against Mr Blair will diminish every time one of his unpalatable reforms is defeated; and, with it, the pressure from within the Labour Party for him to stand down sooner rather than later may subside. The perception and reality of policy drift, though, may well increase the media pressure on Mr Blair to hand-over.
Alternatively, the Tories might decide – especially when it comes to market-led public service reforms – to hug Mr Blair closely, and to prop up his Government. This could have two advantages. First, it places the Conservatives firmly in the mainstream centre-right which Mr Blair has so long, and so successfully, occupied. Secondly, Mr Blair’s continuing Parliamentary success would seriously antagonise the Labour rebels, whose impotence in the face of this New Labour / Tory pact might trigger a revolt which brings about the Prime Minister’s political demise.
What is certain is this: the Tories would be well advised to choose whichever option they believe will hasten Mr Blair’s departure from Downing Street. Gordon Brown’s assumption (in more ways than one) of the top job will give Labour an inevitable boost in popularity. Novelty has charm, and is yet to disappoint. However, the Chancellor presents a far easier target for the Tories to attack than Mr Blair, and they will not want him to have the chance two or three years down the line to call a ‘cut and run’ election during his honeymoon. The sooner they can run out Tony, the longer they have to bowl out Gordon.
What yesterday’s vote demonstrated is Mr Blair’s increasing determination to talk over his party direct to the public. Clare Short took the opportunity to (yet again) accuse Mr Blair of succumbing to “hubris”, the sin customarily ascribed to leaders of longevity. I think this is a clichéd, simplistic interpretation of Mr Blair’s motives. Rather we should see it as an integral part of Mr Blair’s legacy agenda. It might be termed more accurately his ‘sod you’ legacy agenda.
The Prime Minister could have compromised on 90 days: his Home Secretary wanted to, and would have settled for (say) 42 days. The Government would then have won the vote (probably). This would have enabled Mr Blair to prove how tough are his anti-terrorism credentials, and still to have tainted the Tories as ‘soft’. So why didn’t he? As he said so recently himself: “Every time I’ve introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I’d gone further.” You can’t get much clearer than that. Wait a minute: yes you can! For what did Mr Blair declaim at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday: “It is better sometimes to lose doing the right thing, than to win doing the wrong thing.”
Mr Blair is the canniest political operator of his generation. Yesterday’s defeat was not a slip-up or a miscalculation: it was the Prime Minister anticipating his retrospective validation by history. The one legacy Mr Blair believes he can definitely achieve is to be able use his lecture-tour retirement to preach “I told you so”.