What Blair’s crisis tells us about the state of the State

by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2006

As I write, Sky News is splendidly quenching my insatiable thirst for continuing speculation surrounding Tony Blair’s long good-bye (while simultaneously following England’s Euro ’08 progress against Macedonia, and feigning some actual work). Apparently Mr Blair is “considering” announcing tomorrow that he will quit within the year.

It’s a last desperate roll of the dice, and doomed to fail. And why Mr Blair is doomed says much about what is wrong with the British political system.

The Prime Minister, via his emissaries in News International, has told us he will be gone within a year, announcing his resignation on 31st May, and formally quitting on 26th July.

The reasonable question then to be asked is: what does Mr Blair think he can achieve by then, and which only he can achieve? The Sun faithfully reports:

“… he has a full programme yet to deliver — like the Ulster peace process, Iraq and Afghanistan, NHS reforms, trust schools, pensions and nuclear power.”

To achieve all this within nine months seems a tad, erm, challenging. More to the point, it begs the question: which of these does the Prime Minister not trust his heir-presumptuous Gordon Brown to achieve?

Mr Blair refuses to name the date of his departure because, he fears, it will make him a ‘lame duck’ Prime Minister. (Unlike the last two days, presumably.) In fact, I think Mr Blair has a point, pace Paul Walters, who notes that the USA has presidential term-limits built into its constitution, and has somehow muddled through to emerge the world’s only superpower.

But of course our cousins over the pond have another constitutional nicety, termed ‘separation of powers’, ensuring the executive, legislature and judiciary each have carefully-defined powers and responsibilities to keep the others in check.

As a result, though momentum is lost either side of the mid-term elections and the Presidential contest – when one branch of the polity is in flux – the governing of the US is able to continue, balanced by the two constant branches.

In the United Kingdom – which quaintly persists in disdaining a written constitution, trusting instead to our much-vaunted age-old traditions and customs – though all power is vested in the legislature (Parliament) de jure, it is exercised by the executive (the Prime Minister) de facto. When, as is currently the case, the Prime Minister is denuded – and perhaps deluded – of all authority, there is no other branch able to bear the strain of government.

The result? Stasis.

The Lib Dems are often accused of being too obsessed with arcane constitutional arguments, whether proposing an elected House of Lords, a written constitution or electoral reform. And it’s true that some of us have an all-too-geeky interest in analysing different forms of proportional representation.

But structures matter – far more than process – because who operates the government machine matters. To pray in aid Tony Benn a second time this evening:

“I’ll tell you what questions to ask the next time you meet a powerful person: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And, how can we get rid of you?”

What the current crisis tells us is that far too much power in the British system is concentrated in the office of one person, the Prime Minister. Paradoxically, if Mr Blair had less power, he would be better placed to ride out the current storm.

But as the lynchpin of the executive he simply cannot remain in place as his authority melts away like snow in bright sunshine.