Magazine article The Spectator

Victory Will Prove a Humiliating Experience for Tony Blair

Magazine article The Spectator

Victory Will Prove a Humiliating Experience for Tony Blair

Article excerpt

Next Thursday Tony Blair will be re-elected with a fairly generous margin of victory: not less than a 50-seat majority, but probably not much more than 100. The Tories will make some progress, but not much. Anything more than 200 seats after 5 May, and Central Office should open a small case of champagne.

This comparative failure is by no means a matter for despair. The Conservatives have fought a sound campaign. The personal performance of Michael Howard is beyond praise. He has shown stamina, resilience and guts. Twice he has faced desperate situations, once when he took over the Tory leadership in late 2003, then again in November last year, when everything seemed on the verge of collapse. Each time he fought back.

Howard has imposed discipline and made no sloppy errors. He is a seasoned politician and a serious man. When he became leader, the Conservatives were facing collapse in the polls. There was a genuine chance they could be overtaken by the Liberal Democrats and sink back into third-party irrelevance. The fact that this is no longer the case is mainly down to Michael Howard, though Charles Kennedy also deserves his share of the credit.

So many senior Conservatives - Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo are the two most important examples, but there are dozens of other cases - were happy to serve in government, then showed no relish for opposition after 1997. The abiding glory of Michael Howard, and the reason that he will always have a place of great honour in the history of the Conservative party, is that he has not shied away from the sweaty, dreary business of opposition. The true test of the mettle of any human being is not how they handle success. It is how they cope with failure. This is what makes Michael Howard such a remarkable figure.

The second key point which can be confidently stated is that Tony Blair has enjoyed a wretched election. Last Sunday's revelation in the Mail on Sunday of the contents of the Attorney General's pre-war advice has polished off the remains of his reputation. At last February's Downing Street press conference Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 News asked the Prime Minister whether the version of the Attorney General's advice presented to Parliament accurately reflected the legal opinion given on 7 March 2003. Tony Blair replied that it did. It is now clear that it did not, and that Lord Goldsmith stated that the war might be illegal. The Prime Minister is busted.

As recently as last month his closest allies were musing loudly and confidently about the removal of Gordon Brown followed by four definitive years of New Labour. Now the best that can be hoped for is a smooth succession by Gordon Brown after 5 May. Even this modest ambition is far from guaranteed. The Prime Minister's authority is so damaged in his own party that many Labour candidates are campaigning on a blatantly anti-Blair ticket. One of them, Bob Marshall-Andrews in Medway (for whom I am strongly disposed to go and canvass) has announced that he will agitate openly for Blair's departure after 5 May. It is a sign of the gross institutional bias of the British newspaper press and broadcasting media that Marshall-Andrews's astonishing remark generated almost no interest, compared with the week-long spectacle provoked when poor Howard Flight departed from official Tory policy at a private meeting.

The issue of the succession will start at once after 5 May, causing much disruption to Tony Blair's Cabinet plans. …

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