The Gambler: As He Goes above His Party and the British Electorate, Alienates the Chancellor, and Tries to Fix the Succession, the Prime Minister Is Showing Reckless Courage by Going for Broke. but Will He Pull It Off?

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Gambler: As He Goes above His Party and the British Electorate, Alienates the Chancellor, and Tries to Fix the Succession, the Prime Minister Is Showing Reckless Courage by Going for Broke. but Will He Pull It Off?


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


With one bound, he would be free. Tony Blair's gambit, to pre-announce his resignation for five years' time, sets in motion the final phase of his presidency. Finally, after all the cohabitation with Gordon Brown, after all the trimming and self-doubt, he feels beholden to no one. "We've never had this possibility before," one of Blair's associates told me. "The opportunity is there. He can act without the need for alliances or deals. It's a liberating feeling." A man frustrated by the conventions of cabinet government, the Prime Minister is likening his twilight years to the second term of a US president. "He won't have to worry about getting re-elected. We can take more risks. Either it works or it doesn't. If so, he walks," a confidant said.

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In his defiance, Blair has sought to rewrite the British constitution--regarding Labour's electoral mandate as personal, and forgetting that he is in Downing Street by dint of being the elected leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. The astonishing circumstances surrounding his announcement on 30 September testify to this new, carefree approach.

Blair has for some time toyed with the idea of setting an advance date for his departure. As has now been confirmed by both sides, in the early summer, Brown talked him out of a six-month deadline. Shortly thereafter, as he decided to renege on his deal with Brown, Blair came up with the idea of a "fixed-term" final term. When he put that in early July to one senior MP and very close loyalist, he was told it was "barmy", that it would weaken his position. Blair confided in that same MP on the eve of his conference speech, but this time he presented it as a fait accompli. He would not be talked out of it. At no point in these conversations, or in several others that Blair had with a discreet group of friends, did he mention his heart problems.

At about 6pm on the evening of the announcement, Downing Street put in calls to the cabinet. Blair phoned a few ministers himself. Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, called others; his political aides Sally Morgan and Pat McFadden mopped up the rest. They were told in the following order: that he intended to stay a "full" five years but no further, and that he was going into hospital the following day for an operation.

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The only member of cabinet who was not informed was the Chancellor. As his plane touched down in Washington, DC an hour late, at around 8pm London time, the first Brown knew about it was when his small team was called first by journalists and then by his private office in the Treasury. The initial response was bewilderment. They had not seen this coming. Still, given the brinkmanship of the previous days, they were not particularly surprised.

Brown was not the only person to feel aggrieved. Several ministers more sympathetic to Blair did not appreciate the way they had been excluded from this important decision--one that had a bearing as much on the collective as on the individual. One minister had held a long planning meeting with Blair only hours before, but was not given a hint of what was to come. Those granted privileged access to the information included Alan Milburn, recently appointed chief of Labour's election strategy, and Peter Mandelson, the incoming EU trade commissioner.

As Brown held meetings over the next few days with the likes of Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, James Wolfensohn of the World Bank and John Snow, the US treasury secretary, his team monitored the reaction to Blair's move. Nervousness turned to relief as it soon became apparent that the announcement had backfired. Far from shoring up Blair's position, it served to emphasise its fragility.

The mood improved further on the final leg of Brown's trip, in Ottawa, which focused on economic aspects of the Commission for Africa. In policy terms, the deterioration in relations is deeply depressing. …

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