Financial Times Editorial - Wounded Blair must set an early exit date
Published: September 8 2006 03:00 | Last updated: September 8 2006 03:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
The long and remarkable premiership of Tony Blair, the first Labour leader to win three consecutive general elections, is, for most practical purposes, over. The civil warfare within Britain's governing party - which Mr Blair raised from near oblivion to become very nearly the natural party of government - has fatally undermined the authority of the prime minister.
Nevertheless, Mr Blair yesterday refused to set the precise date of his departure, merely confirming the prior intimations of his lieutenants that this month's Labour party conference in Manchester would be his last.
Gordon Brown, his chancellor, partner in the resurrection of the party, and ever more impatient rival for the leadership, did not yesterday demur. Perhaps chastened by public perception that he was trying to organise a coup only 16 months after Labour's re-election, and maybe fearful that he risked destroying the citadel just as it was about to fall into his hands, Mr Brown seemed to indicate he was prepared to wait a little longer.
The events of recent days have not been an edifying spectacle. All civil war is notoriously vicious and beyond reason's reach. But it is striking how much commentary accepts the self-interested terms of debate set by the civil warriors, about what is best for them and their party.
This is a matter of some bemusement to most British citizens, as well as foreigners perplexed by Britain's traditions of political assassination. On the face of it, moreover, this has been a successful government that has presided over unbroken economic growth. It is not massively below popularity levels common for second- or third-term governments, yet it is wallowing in introspective factionalism that has lost sight of the national interest.
Mr Blair, of course, has forfeited a lot of support within a party that never took him to its heart and which he has frequently treated with contempt. His plummeting popularity because of the Iraq debacle, compounded by his error of judgment in holding out against an early ceasefire in the recent Lebanon war, is the sort of trend that makes many Labour MPs fear for their seats.
Mr Blair and his circle often seemed trapped in a weird amalgam of embattled hubris. Here is a man who responds to any questioning of his increasingly inexplicable foreign policy by expressing his "complete inner confidence" that he is doing the right thing. Aides plotting the manner of his departure aver that it is not so much what the government has delivered that counts as the survival of Blairism.
But the more proximate cause of his troubles is that different streams of party discontent have flowed into each other - the unreconciled on Iraq, the irreconcilable Old Labour rump, and a larger, mainstream group unhappy with the domestic reform agenda.
This confluence of rebellion is probably enough to deny Mr Blair his long goodbye. It is certainly enough to paralyse meaningful government. That means the prime minister should set a date for his exit that is sooner rather than later - in a way that serves the country ahead of his party.
This government was re-elected - albeit with widespread clenching of teeth - on the understanding that Mr Blair was pledged to serve a full term, and on a prospectus of reform, especially in public services. That cannot now be changed as a result of some backroom deal between the prime minister and the chancellor. As Mr Blair himself said yesterday: "We can't treat the public as irrelevant bystanders."
Britain's parliamentary system - where it is the largest party that has the right to form the government - allows the transfer of power within the party. But to proceed purely on that basis in these circumstances would be to pickpocket the electorate.
Mr Blair should therefore set an early date for his move to a caretaker role and the start of a contest to succeed him. Mr Brown is, of course, the overwhelming favourite to take over. But we know surprisingly little about the likely content of his future policies, beyond the assertion of his absolute right to formulate them.
There are genuine differences within New Labour. The most significant, highlighted by, among others, Charles Clarke, the defenestrated former home and education secretary, is between those who favour a centralised, Fabian-style delivery of public goods and services, and those who insist on the need for choice and diversity. The Blairite view that design flaws in the provision of welfare and public service entrench inequality and hold back the disadvantaged is valid. Where does the chancellor, instinctively centralist throughout his years at the Treasury, stand on this? What sort of foreign policy, for that matter, can we expect from Mr Brown, beyond periodic and patronising sermons to our European partners?
None of this should be seen, or used, as a ploy to deny the chancellor the premiership. The purpose of debate is to clarify and to sharpen. People want to know what Mr Brown really stands for. He and Mr Blair should not forget they are public servants; under Britain's system, the electorate is master.