In his own sweet time

by Stephen Tall on June 19, 2006

Things are getting bad for Labour – so bad, even Jackie Ashley in today’s thegrauniad is worried:

So low is morale that once-ambitious ministers are heard openly discussing the upside of spending a few years out of government, rebuilding friendships and family links, or simply getting some proper sleep.

The solution, argues Ms Ashley, is simple: the Prime Minister should announce his timetable for an “orderly transition” at Labour’s party conference in September. This sounds right to me. Mr Blair is now a busted flush, his power draining daily.

Where I part company with Ms Ashley is here:

Whatever view you take of Blair, his decision to pre-announce a post-election departure at some unexplained moment now looks like one of the worst tactical mistakes of his career. Downing Street is despairing about the endless speculation but it started right there.

Virtual history always makes for fascinatingly pointless conjecture. But – putting to one side the blindingly obvious that Iraq was Mr Blair’s greatest political, strategic and tactical mistake – this strikes me as misleading 20/20 hindsight.

Consider what might have happened had Mr Blair not pre-announced his departure.

First, would Gordon Brown still be sulkily biding his time; or would he have attempted to force events?

Secondly, would Mr Blair have achieved a healthy-if-wounding 66 seat Commons majority? Surely many Labour voters stuck, reluctantly, by Team Tony precisely because they were reassured his shelf-life was limited?

Thirdly, is it really likely that – but for his pre-announcement – there would currently be no speculation surrounding Mr Blair’s future? There was plenty surrounding Margaret Thatcher in her third term, despite her repeated protestations she would go “on and on and on”.

Fourthly, what more pressure would Mr Blair be presently under if he had not confirmed his departure? Every single scandal, resignation, cock-up and defeat would add to the tumult that Mr Blair should go. It’s hard to get too exercised when the question is not whether, but when.

Finally, I doubt Mr Blair ever expected to serve a full third term. He is a realist with the best political mind of his generation, bar none. By saying he might go on for up to five years, he hoped to buy himself two or three. He’ll probably manage the lower end of his expectations – which seems an apt epitaph for his Premiership.