The End of Blair

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The End of Blair


Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review


ON 27 June Tony Blair will climb into his heavily armoured limousine and be driven the short distance down the Mall to Buckingham Place where he will resign his seals of office to the Queen. It will be just a few weeks more than ten years since the Queen asked him to become her Prime Minister following his landslide electoral victory in May, 1997. His decade in office can be easily summed up: he arrived as the most popular Prime Minister in British history; he leaves as one of the most unpopular.

For almost one year he has been the fading star of his final melodrama: Tony's Farewell. During the 2005 election he was placed in the impossible position that affects any long-serving Prime Minister. How long, reporters incessantly demanded, would he stay in office. Would he be satisfied with a third election victory or would he, still in his fifties, try for a fourth triumph. Mindful that Margaret Thatcher had made the wrong move by saying, apparently only once, that she would go 'on and on', Blair said he would not face a fourth election but he would serve out his term if re-elected in 2005. This solved the immediate electoral need but it was obvious to everyone who understood British politics that he would have to go at some point before Labour sought a fourth victory. When in October 2005 the Conservatives at last found an effective new leader, David Cameron, in many ways a Blair clone, Labour began to fall in the polls. Blessed with a smiling popular leader with a full head of hair, the hitherto unfashionable Conservatives began to take a solid lead. They even began to surpass Labour in its mastery of 'spin doctoring' as most of the Labour geniuses of this art had left for more profitable posts.

For almost all backbench MPs of all parties there is no principle so sacred as protecting their own seats and increasing their already inflated pensions. Few 'professions' have done so well out of the Blair era as the ever-expanding breed of professional politicians and this has made most backbenchers even more craven in their subservience to the party leadership. Yet Blair's Iraq policy, exacerbated by his supine behaviour during the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, made him increasingly unpopular, indeed detested by many in his own party. His personal approval rating plunged to about 26 per cent. Rumours abounded in the summer of 2006 that a 'coup' was being planned by disgruntled MPs. They wanted to force Blair out and bring in his long-time rival, Gordon Brown. Last September Blair effectively, (dare one say) 'scotched' this plotting by announcing that he would not be in office when the next autumnal conferences of political parties and trade unions were held. Since then he and even more his embattled aides seem to have felt that the main political business facing Britain in 2007 was to secure a glittering 'legacy' for their Leader.

The leader and his 'legacy' began to crumble in May. On 3 May Labour did very badly in local elections. The Conservatives won 5,315 English council seats in the elections, a net gain of 911. The Liberal Democrats won 2,171, a net loss of 246. Labour won 1,877 seats, a net loss of 505. The Conservatives gained control of 39 local councils, leaving them with control of 206. Labour suffered a net loss of eight, leaving them with control of 46, and the Liberal Democrats had a net loss of four, leaving them in control of 27. Even more ominously, Labour did badly in their bastions in Wales while in Scotland they fell into second place. When Blair made a rare visit to the House of Commons one of the last extant Tory grandees, Sir Peter Tapsell, flung an effective bard: 'May I at this transitory phase commend him that despite the deep disillusionment of his fellow countrymen in his premiership he still manages to portray an optimism that eluded James 11 and would have delighted Walter Mitty'. On 10 May Blair flew (an increase in his 'carbon footprint' being a small price to pay for a great 'photo-op') to his constituency in County Durham. …

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