Stop all the clocks, cut off the Prime Minister

by Stephen Tall on September 5, 2006

There was much talk last week of ‘tragic flaws’. So what are Mr Blair’s? (It seems about the right time to start the retrospectives – though, please God, tell me Labour’s self-indulgent soap opera isn’t going to run another 12 months?)

Two exempla from this year:

First, when the ‘cash for peerages’ row ignited following the arrests of government advisor Des Smith and New Labour fundraiser Lord Levy, it was perfectly clear that Mr Blair just could not understand what all the fuss was about. He ignored the issue – not out of embarrassment or shame, but genuinely bewilderment that the media or public could bother their pretty heads about such a trifle.

He could have got away either with contrition, or a robust denial of any wrongdoing. What harmed him most was the appearance that he just didn’t care if the accusations were true or not – probably because he didn’t. Mr Blair regards himself as a pretty straight kind of guy: and that should be enough for the rest of us.

Secondly, when Ming Campbell stood up in the House of Commons, on 19th July, to call for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon Mr Blair ridiculed the suggestion. A fortnight later he delayed his holiday to help achieve just that aim – not because of public discontent or the mutinous mood among Labour MPs, but because President Bush finally acknowledged there was no alternative.

Mr Blair has always argued – and most of us have accepted – that he can’t do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually, and let rip against the Americans on a whim. The trade-off he sold us was clear. He would be circumspect in public about US human rights abuses in (for example) Guantanamo Bay; and, in return, would earn real leverage with the White House in private. The Israel-Lebanon conflict revealed not only that Mr Blair has scant disagreement with Mr Bush’s neo-con agenda; but also quite how marginal is his behind-the-scenes influence.

The easy accusation to fling at Mr Blair is arrogance – and in a sense that’s fair enough. His transcendental response to ‘cash for peerages’ was arrogant. His slavish devotion to Mr Bush’s disastrous foreign policy is arrogant – though one might, more kindly, ascribe it simply to a catastrophic miscalculation of Britain’s solo place in the global pecking order.

Mr Blair is formidably impressive, and without doubt the most articulate, clear-sighted and instinctual politician of his generation. That he has largely failed as Prime Minister is something which will eat away at him during his long retirement. His memoirs, when he writes them, will not be written for the public. Mr Blair will have just two audiences in mind: himself and posterity. And that will be an apt epitaph in itself.

There comes a point when a politician fails to listen to the voters, and that is the point when a politician stops being heard. Mr Blair has passed this point of no return. Whether he resigns now, next May, or a year today is irrelevant. Today was the day he finally lost power.

The rest of his Premiership will be idle clock-watching. The time will pass very quickly for him, and very slowly for us. Better if the clock were stopped now.