prove a humiliating experience for Tony Blair
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
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. The hapless Prime
Minister has no freedom of action. Instead he will humiliatingly
be forced to take account of the trenchant views of Gordon Brown.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is a case in point. Supposing
Straw wins Blackburn, an outcome which cannot quite be guaranteed,
and he wishes to remain in post. The signs are that Tony Blair yearns
to sack him. But Brown is fighting Straw’s cause. John Prescott,
who has turned during the course of this campaign into a wholly
preposterous figure, is another subject of conjecture. There is
talk from within Downing Street that he will shortly step down as
deputy leader of the Labour party. The purpose of this manoeuvre
is to permit Gordon Brown to take over, and gain control of the
party machinery. Downing Street sources say that Brown has been
promised complete control of the domestic agenda, leaving Tony Blair
with his feeble hegemony in foreign affairs and defence (a subject
which was barely touched on in the Labour manifesto. It is a matter
of disgrace that, at a time when British troops are engaged in so
many theatres of war, national defence has played no role in the
election debate). But that means that the Prime Minister is powerless,
for it is impossible that the British people would ever trust him
to take us into another war.
The triumph of the Chancellor has created a very interesting set
of problems within the Cabinet. It must be presumed that Blair-supporters
like John Reid, Charles Clarke, Alan Johnson and Alan Milburn wish
to continue their political careers after the Prime Minister departs.
Till now their strategy has been to unite against Brown. But now
they are all faced with the conundrum of how to work alongside the
Chancellor — something much more easily said than done. Some, like
the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, may find the task impossible.
For him Tony Blair’s surrender to Brown is a disaster.
It is likely that Tony Blair and Michael Howard will fade out of
politics together, in about two years’ time. It would be a calamity
for the Tories if Michael Howard emulates John Major and William
Hague and quits instantly in the wake of defeat. Howard’s job is
only half done. Having saved the party from oblivion in this campaign,
he must turn it into a party of government in time for the next.
The weakness of the Tory 2005 campaign is the failure to present
a large and generous political vision of British society and government
under the Conservatives, and Michael Howard’s final duty will be
to oversee a grand redefinition and rediscovery of Conservative
passion and ideas.
Michael Howard’s and Tony Blair’s careers have followed curiously
parallel paths for two decades. In the 1980s Howard was the powerful
figure, shadowed by Tony Blair first at Environment and then at
the Home Office. Now the roles are reversed as they head their respective
parties. Both men face defeat in this election: Howard at the hands
of the British electorate and Tony Blair at the hands of Gordon
Brown. History, though, will judge Howard far more highly. Next
week Tony Blair will be the tragic protagonist in a strange drama.
The voters will vote, open-eyed, for a known and proven liar. It
has always been conventionally held that once a British politician
is proved to have shown bad faith, he will be thrown out of office
at the first opportunity. Not so this time. In the long term the
public will never forgive Tony Blair for making them his accomplice
in this immoral act.