Saturday, December 23, 2006

My Political Review of 2006

It's been a highly eventful year politically, so for those who would like to relive with me the ups and downs of the past 12 months, here's my Political Review of the Year, first published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.


IT was the year of Charles Kennedy’s downfall, the year of David Cameron’s rise and rise – and the year John Prescott was forced to give up any remaining claims to be taken seriously.

But the political year 2006 will be remembered, above all, for one over-arching story – the long, slow demise of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It was a story that took on many different guises. The police investigation into “cash for honours.” The increasingly bitter power struggles with Gordon Brown. Iraq’s descent into chaos following the disastrous war that Mr Blair helped initiate.

But these stories were really all one – the story of a leader who had long outstayed his welcome, yet who, in the vain search for a legacy, continued to rage against the dying of the light.

But to begin at the beginning – to borrow another of Dylan Thomas’s famous phrases – the year kicked off with attention focused on another party leader.

Dissatisfaction with Mr Kennedy’s leadership had been simmering within Liberal Democrat ranks for a while, and before the New Year was a week old it had finally boiled over.

Having belatedly admitted to a drink problem, Mr Kennedy was forced out in a revolt by his own MPs, some of whom probably owed their seats to his personal popularity with the voters.

Sir Menzies Campbell saw off a spirited challenge from newbie MP Chris Huhne to win the leadership, but he lacks his predecessor’s common touch and the party’s ratings remained in the doldrums.

For the Tories, too, it was a testing year, as David Cameron continued his march towards the political centre-ground to the dismay of the party’s more traditional elements.

Like Mr Blair before him, Mr Cameron set out to define himself in opposition to his own party, notably by backing redistributive taxation and highlighting green issues.

It was all too much for some, and his talk of “tough love,” “hug a hoodie” and “letting sunshine win the day” was widely ridiculed.

But it seemed to strike a chord with the electorate, with the Tories ending the year eight points ahead of Labour in some polls – enough to convert into an outright election win.

The Cameron phenomenon was partly, though not solely responsible for the continuing political malaise within Labour.

For the fist time since 1997, Mr Blair was up against someone who looked like a genuine contender for power – but Labour seemed unsure of how to respond to the Tory young pretender.

With all the self-delusion of those who remain in power too long, the Prime Minister continued to see himself as part of the solution rather than the problem.

But the voters begged to differ, and a dismal set of local election results in May saw more and more Labour MPs come to the view that he should stand down sooner rather than later.

Initially, Mr Blair tried to blame the poor showing on the revelation of Mr Prescott’s affair with his diary secretary shortly before the poll, and a row over the deportation of foreign prisoners which had been badly mishandled by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

He staged a dramatic Cabinet reshuffle in which Mr Clarke was summarily sacked and Mr Prescott stripped of all his remaining powers.

But the view among a growing number of Labour backbenchers was that the person Mr Blair really needed to reshuffle was himself.

It all came to a head in September. A group of previously loyal MPs signed a letter demanding that Mr Blair set out a timetable for his departure.

At first, it seemed the tip of the iceberg. There was excited talk at Westminster that up to 50 MPs would join in and that a Cabinet minister would deliver the coup-de-grace with a Geoffrey Howe-style resignation.

But although the coup attempt faltered, Mr Blair was forced to make clear that he would stand down next summer, and that the forthcoming conference in Manchester would be his last.

The Blairites, furious that their man had been backed into such a corner, attempted to implicate the Chancellor in the plot as relations between Labour’s Big Two plummeted to an all-time low.

It was clear that a patching-up operation would be needed to get through the conference, but Mr Brown’s attempts at conciliation were undermined when Cherie Blair was heard to call him a liar during his keynote speech.

Thereafter, an uneasy truce prevailed. Mr Brown remained on probation, while the Blairites secretly hoped another contender might step up to the mark.

But their great hope, Environment Secretary David Miliband, ruled himself out of the race, while new Home Secretary John Reid also appeared reluctant to join in.

Mr Brown’s succession began to appear increasingly assured, if only from the lack of plausible alternatives.

He even received a somewhat double-edged endorsement from Mr Blair, who warned Mr Cameron during a Commons debate that a “big clunking first” would soon lay him out on the canvas.

By the year end, it seemed politics had gone into a bizarre state of inertia, with Mr Blair increasingly in office but not in power.

He suffered the humiliation of becoming the first serving premier to be questioned by police over abuse of the honours system, but still he hung on, sullying not just his party’s reputation but that of politics in general.

In an emotional final keynote conference speech in Manchester, Mr Blair had declared that his most important legacy would be a fourth term Labour Government.

But history may well judge that, by his actions during 2006, he greatly reduced the chances of such an outcome.

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Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a very balanced blog, Paul. Interesting stuff and it makes good reading. I think I'll bookmark it!

Your report on Tony Blair was thoughtful and fairly comprehensive. But I'd like to make one or two points, if you don't mind.

There can be few who would disagree that Blair's fatal error seems to be his perceived misjudgements over Iraq. Yet, even with the war well underway, he was still a popular leader in the country, and across parties, myself being such an example.

And just last year he won a historic third term for his party, albeit with a reduced majority. The still unsettled arguments, over whether he "lied" or "exaggerated" about certain aspects of the situation in Iraq, and whether or not he was too willing to fall in behind Bush, seem to bring out the attitude in much of the liberal litterati that - ".. now we shouldn't believe anything he says". This blanket condemnation is all-pervasive despite, in my opinion, being ill-informed and innacurate. Before we leap to judgement we should recognise that there are many ifs and buts; I won't rehearse them all here. But I'd just like people to consider this:

In which ways would a different prime minister have behaved - had it been Brown (or Cameron, if the Tories were in power)? The realpolitik answer is that everything would have been just the same and we would be where we now are today.

So, presumably Brown would be the one being hounded out of office?

No? If not, why not? Possibly because the Labour party, rather than the country, are seeking Blair's removal, before he does any more damage to the party by moving it further in a direction it still finds pretty repugnant. (Ignore the fact that only that direction, Blair's direction, will guarantee Labour's future.)

The Left used the deteriorating conflict in Iraq as justification for their coup attempt, but that was not their real reason. True, some of them were against UK involvement from the start, and so can justify their calls for Blair to go. To this body of individuals the pro-war Brown cannot claim membership. He is as signed-up to the whole enterprise as Blair. Yet, HE is the one waiting to be hailed by many on the Left. I believe their hopes are invested in the wrong place, and can see more problems in the near future for Labour as Brown's premiership manifests itself. "Middle England" will not vote for Brown in the next general election, no matter how clever he thinks he is.

You say about Blair: "He suffered the humiliation of becoming the first serving premier to be questioned by police over abuse of the honours system, but still he hung on, sullying not just his party’s reputation but that of politics in general."

So, Paul, if YOU were questioned about something by the police then that would automatically infer your guilt and you'd need to resign from your job? No? And neither should the PM.

We should be celebrating the fact that the police in this country are free to treat a Prime Minister in the same way as they treat everyone else. It does not happen everywhere.

By staying in post Blair is no more sullying the (already low) reputation of politics than he would have done if he had dramatically resigned. Now THAT would have been interpreted as an admission of guilt.

It is all too easy to blame the Prime Minister outright and solely as the cause of his party's, the country's and Iraq's problems.

Personally I want him to remain in post, though I know this is most unlikely. The knives are out for him and they won't be removed until "the job is done".

Let's see Labour win the next election WITHOUT Blair. Of course when they lose it, they can still blame Blair - as you hint above.

That's what this hero of the non-ideological is for.

My blog:

skipper said...

No question he has reduced such chances. David Marquand yesterday said he had left his party in a desperate state. But a likely backlash against Cameron plus the built in bias of the electoral system should see Labour home as the biggest party I reckon from the vantage point of right now.