If the PM loses again he must go
SO, WHICH is it to be? Dead Man Walking or With One Bound Tony Was Free? What destiny awaits the Prime Minister following last week's unprecedented defeat for him in the Commons? At a personal level, the auguries do not look good for Tony Blair.
Blair's prospects have been written off already by many commentators, and after last week's parliamentary rebellion that would have been the general consensus about any prime minister with less Houdini-like characteristics. The key to the situation is last May's general election, which cut Labour's majority to 66. In normal times, that would be a mandate that any party leader would welcome. But these are not normal circumstances: Blair has long been at war with the prevailing ethos of his own party. Unlike Gordon Brown, he is not intuitively a Labour man: he is a man who used the Labour Party to gain access to power.
Now, with a reduced majority, he is at the mercy of dissidents who, in the early, heady days of New Labour, were contemptuously disregarded. In the terms of the slogan Blair once coined (to indignant disapproval from Scottish football supporters), Labour is coming home. So are the Prime Minister's chickens.
Despite his claim not to have a reverse gear, the Prime Minister has beaten a discreet retreat more often in the past than might be thought. His ditching of Frank Field signalled a lack of commitment to genuine, radical welfare reform and, as early as 1998, the then- minister Harriet Harman was prevented by Labour MPs from implementing reforms so modest as to be virtually cosmetic. On health, Blair was compelled to water down his plan for foundation hospitals to a minimalist level of innovation. Now Patricia Hewitt has been forced by the resurgent Labour left to backtrack on NHS reform. The recent education White Paper, a programme to transform failing schools, is set to be shredded by angry MPs.
Some commentators have pointed out that, if he dares, Blair can circumvent his rebels by introducing some reforms without going through parliament, as he did when he privatised 8% of NHS operations and could do now by creating more City Academies in England. But what price a prime minister who has to do his work through the back door? No, if Blair cannot pursue his reform agenda, there is no point in his remaining in office but not in power. Indeed, such a situation is dangerous for the country. The situation may yet be taken out of Blair's hands: the Commons timetable is nebulous at the moment, with key votes on health and education not certain until the early spring; but two more defeats on important issues would signal the end of the Blair premiership.
Last week's terror vote was different from the other likely confrontations: the 90-day proposed period for detention without charge was an assault on the country's judicial traditions. In repelling it, Labour rebels did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Next time, if he seeks health or education reform, Blair should be able to rely on Tory support - but that will further enrage his own party. More likely, he might scrape through a trickle of mini-reforms, but what good is that? If, by early next year, the Prime Minister is indisputably a lame duck, then he will have to resign.
Brown, who is too much of a Hamlet to speed Blair on his way, would then face two choices. He could use his authority over his party to implement full-blooded reforms; but that is not his instinct, as he demonstrated by his sabotage of foundation hospitals. Alternatively, he could put public service reform on the back burner and try to fudge it.
The next general election will be a transformed affair. The Conservative Party looks on the cusp of rejuvenation, while Labour's rebels seem determined to return their party to the leftism of its past. If Brown is unwilling to face them down, there will be only one rightful 'heir to Blair' - and he is not in the Labour Party.
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