September 10, 2006


DEATH BY POLITICS - LABOUR’S CIVIL WAR (James Cusick, 9/10/06, Sunday Herald)

One backbench source told the Sunday Herald: “Although many MPs told Bryant they agreed with the urgency, they told him to piss off anyway. Why? Because most believed Tony would be gone within a year whether he officially laid out a timetable or not.’’

Bryant’s letter wasn’t the only one being prepared. The “stand aside” message was being rephrased in other parallel letters, among them an appeal to Downing Street from last year’s intake of new Labour MPs. A delegation of ministers, some junior, some on the verge of full Cabinet appointments, were also said to be preparing to march on Downing Street. Newsrooms would be informed of the preparations for what one MP called “a procession of lieutenants coming for the chief”.

The presumption in the battle plan was that, despite assurances from Number 10 that a successor would be given “ample time”, Blair would once again defy the party, defy the political reality facing his government and stay, even beyond next year. The letters and ministerial march had one objective: for this weekend’s headlines to scream that Blair would announce his resignation at the party conference in Manchester in three weeks’ time.

In politics, as with other battlefields, lieutenants don’t act without orders. There had to be a command structure for this attempted coup. Detective thrillers and games of Cluedo are easily matched to shenanigans in Whitehall: all you need is a victim, the weapon, the location and the perpetrator. This game, however, had only one suspect, one victim, one location. Two questions remained unanswered: how deeply was Gordon’s dagger in Blair’s back, and was the coup planned in the centre of Britain’s alternative government, the Treasury?

So where were the clues to this Whitehall thriller? First, there was growing unease among Brownites that Blair would once again try to stay on well beyond next year. This was signalled in an article written last month by Neal Lawson, one of Brown’s former advisers and founder of think-tank Compass. Lawson, worried about a Brown administration being tied into a Blairite agenda and a 10-year programme set in stone before the hand-over, offered the way out. “Like all politicians, Blair responds to pressure,” he wrote.

One Labour MP said: “I read Lawson’s piece as a call to arms by Gordon Brown. I read it as Brown saying that pressure had delivered compromises from Blair before, from a ‘full term’ to ‘ample time’. And I read it that there was concern that, without further pressure, ‘Houdini’ would mount an escape again.”

‘No prime minister can for long survive a rancorous squabble with their next-door neighbour at No 11’ (Norman Tebbit, 9/10/06, Sunday Herald)
Thatcher’s fall began when she fell out with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson. She neither made things up, moved him or sacked him. More than once she said to me: “If Nigel, you and I stick together we can beat anyone.” But we didn’t. I left the government in 1987 to care for my wife. She lost confidence in Nigel and he resigned in 1989.

Just as surely, Tony Blair must have felt that so long as he, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson stuck together, New Labour would keep beating a demoralised Tory Party daft enough to dump the original election winner.

Now the disgraced Mandy has been exiled to get rich in Brussels and Gordon Brown has lost patience with Blair’s broken promises to resign and let the chancellor move into Number 10. No prime minister can for long survive a rancorous long-running squabble with his next-door neighbour at Number 11. If they can’t get on, the prime minister has to sack his chancellor, make him foreign secretary, kick him upstairs to the Lords as lord chancellor or see his Cabinet disintegrate.

It happened to Margaret Thatcher. She should have moved Nigel Lawson but she didn’t. In the end he resigned. A year later, so did Geoffrey Howe, who ganged up with Michael Heseltine to bring her down, and by then even her Cabinet would not back her.

Now it is happening to Tony Blair. It is even more difficult for him. He is the duck who lamed himself by saying he was going to resign. He can’t sack Gordon Brown, having promised long ago that he would smooth the chancellor’s way into Number 10.

But they have not just fallen out over policy. Brown believes Blair has ratted on him. Blair believes Brown is a disloyal colleague, trying to undermine him and that he would be a disastrous prime minister. Everyone believes that Tony Blair is hanging on, playing for time, looking for a colleague big enough to muscle the chancellor aside.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to be Tony Blair’s successor as prime minister with Gordon Brown still next door, nor with him smouldering with rage making trouble on the back benches. Surely the prime minister must know he is storing up a civil war in his own party by hanging on?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2006 6:15 PM

Why did Mr. blair get himself into this box by announcing he wouldn't challenge the next election? I must have missed his reason for this but the article is right that he lamed himself. Not a lot of hope for him at this stage, eh?

Posted by: Tom Wall at September 10, 2006 7:30 PM

He'd promised Gordon Brown he'd leave before this election.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2006 9:07 PM