Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble Is Blair Wants 'Ample Time', Too. So Let's See How the Education Vote Goes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble Is Blair Wants 'Ample Time', Too. So Let's See How the Education Vote Goes

Article excerpt

Tony Blair has long had a private 'timetable' for his departure.

The trouble is that it is much more complicated, conditional and flexible than his enemies would wish. It is not a single linear timeline, but a series of intertwined chronologies that he hopes will converge towards an agreeable exit date. What he refuses to do is to set that date arbitrarily to satisfy the bailiffs of the Labour party who lurk moodily outside No. 10.

Here is an example of the problem: the Prime Minister has long been planning to make a keynote speech in America on geopolitical issues, to continue his valedictory series of ex cathedra pronouncements on international affairs that began in Oxford in February.

Part of Mr Blair's purpose on this occasion is to persuade the world that President Bush's true position on the environment, global terrorism and the need for multilateral action has been misunderstood. He has urged Mr Bush to say as much 'in English, not in Texan'. The Prime Minister's visit is intended to nudge the President, as well as to help him. But -- crucially -- Mr Blair will not make his speech in the US until a unity government is established in Iraq by prime minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki. In other words: the prospects for transition in Westminster are intimately linked with the prospects for transition in Baghdad.

Much was made -- quite rightly -- of Mr Blair's remarks at his monthly press conference last Monday about the succession and his promise to give the new Labour leader 'the time properly needed to bed himself in' (apparently women need not apply). Asked if Gordon Brown was his chosen successor, the Prime Minister adopted his special puzzled expression and said, 'Of course he is.

When have I ever said anything different?' Well, 1 October 2004, for starters. In an interview with the BBC on that evening, Mr Blair stopped far short of a full endorsement.

'You know, there's lots of people who want to do the job, ' he said. He also remarked that 'there have been all these stories rolling around that maybe I might stand for election but then stand down -- in year one, year two -- I'm not going to do that. I think if you put yourself forward you've got to put yourself forward for the full term. Now at some point shortly before that election, there's then a change and the leadership procedures of the Labour party are clear and can be done reasonably quickly.' That is very different indeed from the formula he presented to Labour MPs last Monday: one that would give Mr Brown 'ample time' to get his feet under the desk and establish himself in the mind of the public as Prime Minister rather than Chancellor.

Why then, the Brownites ask, can Mr Blair not define what 'ample' means? There are Cromwells and Amerys everywhere: 'Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!' Why does he refuse to? Cussedness, partly. Mr Blair is a very stubborn politician, a character trait that was obscured by his early deference to focus groups. His politics is often Newtonian, in that each action against him produces an equal and opposite reaction: press him to resign and he will dig in his heels. I think he means it, too, when he says that a formally announced countdown -- only 265 days to go till we say 'bye bye, Blair!' -- would demean his office and paralyse government.

But there is another reason. …

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