Magazine article The Spectator

How a Coalition of the Willing Could Save Blair - and Howard

Magazine article The Spectator

How a Coalition of the Willing Could Save Blair - and Howard

Article excerpt

Could terrorism turn the British political landscape on its head, much as it has done in Spain? Government sources naturally give this scenario short shrift. They argue that Tony Blair faces no comparable electoral test here any time soon. They add that the war in Iraq, though never popular, has never been quite as universally loathed as its detractors on both Left and Right have made out. Indeed, one famously robust Labour minister from a Midlands manufacturing constituency even claims that because of the war, support for the government has actually gone up among the much vaunted C1s and C2s - the cream of the upper-working classes and lower-middle classes whose support the Tories must regain if ever they are to return to power.

The government, however, may be too dismissive of the Spanish comparison. A terrorist might conclude that the soft underbelly of the British system is not so much public opinion as the Labour party, both inside and outside of Parliament. Hitherto, Mr Blair has kept them in line through a virtuoso display of nerve. If, however, there is a September 11 on British soil, everything will be up for grabs. There is then every chance that a large number of MPs and Cabinet ministers - larger than the 139 Labour MPs who voted against their own government on the war in March 2003 - will turn round and say to the Prime Minister after the fashion of Spanish voters: 'You got us into this because of your alliance with Bush. It's time to get out of Iraq and to bring our boys home.'

Mr Blair could not now do that without destroying himself - and he knows it. He believes that he is in a fight with evil. But the real reason why the Prime Minister is in a stronger position than his vanquished Spanish allies is that in the event of a destabilising, widespread Labour revolt, he has an escape route. He could declare a national emergency and then invite the pro-war loyal Conservative opposition to join a coalition. In that sense, his position would be reminiscent of the Liberal prime minister H.H. Asquith, who invited Andrew Bonar Law's Tories to enter the government in 1915 when the ruling party started to lose its authority following a series of military reversals and Whitehall quarrels.

'To seem to welcome into the intimacy of the political household strange, alien, hitherto hostile figures was a most intolerable task,' lamented Asquith after the formation of that coalition. It would be little easier for Mr Blair, whose raison d'être has been the forging of a responsible party of the centre Left that is just as capable of running the nation's affairs as the Tories of yesteryear. But if an internal party explosion came on the heels of a real one, might not his project (and position) stand a better chance of survival under the protective umbrella of a national government? The key role here would be played by Gordon Brown. In 1915 the then Chancellor, Lloyd George, was a staunch advocate of coalition. What would Mr Brown do in such circumstances?

Certainly, unhappy memories are still conjured within the party by the name of Ramsay MacDonald - who split the Labour movement when he formed a National Government with Tories and Liberals to implement financial orthodoxy during a run on the pound in 1931. But Mr Blair would be in a far better position in the event of a schism. He would carry rather more of the Cabinet and PLP than did MacDonald and his supporters, who thereafter constituted a rump. Indeed, in the event of the Prime Minister having to form a coalition with the Tories, history suggests that Blairites would probably do disproportionately well in the carve-up of positions. …

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