Magazine article The Spectator

This Was the Week the Great New Labour Civil War Began

Magazine article The Spectator

This Was the Week the Great New Labour Civil War Began

Article excerpt

Matthew d'Ancona says that the Prime Minister's power has now gone for good, no matter when he stands down formally. The Labour party will descend into a battle to define its future as Gordon Brown struggles to prevent a leadership contest

Two days before David Cameron was elected Conservative leader, I asked one of his closest allies what the founding principle of Cameronism would be. He pondered the question. Would it, I wondered, be something to do with quality of life, the public services, the environment, social justice, nationhood? 'Our starting point, ' he finally replied, 'is that the Tory party can never beat Tony Blair.'

This First Law of Cameronism, he explained, had an important subclause: Blair himself could beat Blair, by contaminating his own brand to the point where he could no longer plausibly hold office. All the same, the fundamental concession offered by this shadow Cabinet member was a huge one: after 12 years, the Conservatives themselves have still not found a way of defeating the Labour party's most electorally successful leader, a politician whose record of parliamentary majorities exceeds even Margaret Thatcher's.

The Prime Minister may yet go into political remission, survive a little longer, pull off his usual party conference trick of buying time. His aides say he would like to wait until 31 May to announce his departure. But even if he lingers that long, he will be a political wraith, barely in office and certainly not in power.

The game is definitely up - less than 18 months after he was re-elected with a comfortable parliamentary majority on the basis of an explicit promise to serve a full third term. 'There have been all these stories rolling round that maybe I might stand for election but stand down in year one, year two, ' he said in October 2004. 'I'm not going to do that.' Oh yes you are, Prime Minister.

The political scale of the Blair phenomenon is worth recalling even as it reaches this ugly, broken-backed conclusion. To an astonishing extent, Labour has forgotten how far it travelled under his leadership: on 10 April 1992, many in the party thought it could never win again. On the morning of 2 May 1997, many wondered if Blair's Labour could ever lose. On that sunlit day, the horrors of 9/11, the controversies over the Iraq war and the seething recriminations that have followed were still an age away. The kaleidoscope had not yet been shaken.

The first week of September 2006 will be remembered as the moment when the Blair premiership ended - irrespective of the date of its formal termination - and the days in which the Great New Labour Civil War began. True, the party has been mired in faction and division ever since Gordon Brown was passed over for the leadership in 1994: the end of the Blair era was indeed defined by the form of its beginning. That battle has been constant and enervating:

after the May local elections, the Prime Minister told his allies furiously that the calls for him to go were nothing less than 'an attempted coup d'etat'.

But the conflict that is now unfolding dwarfs the tensions that have previously bedevilled the 12-year Blair-Brown duumvirate. This is about much more than the personal rivalry and tension over policy between two men. It is a battle for the very soul of the party, a conflagration of petty animosities and ideological traumas. It stretches from the newly emboldened trade union movement - paymaster once more to the impoverished Labour party - to the ultraBlairite 'outriders', Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn (who, according to one frustrated Cabinet minister, 'need Asbos slapped on them - they are New Labour's hoodies').

In such a feverish context, there was something vaguely pathetic about the Downing Street memo leaked last week proposing a grand Blair-well tour, taking in Blue Peter, 'iconic locations'. The plan declares that 'he should be the star who won't even play that last encore'. …

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