Everyone knows that moment in the Bugs Bunny cartoons when the rabbit dashes over the cliff. For a few moments the creature remains aloft, suspended in space, little legs busily pumping away. Then he makes the mistake of looking down, realises the gravity of his predicament, and starts to plunge precipitously downwards.
Tony Blair is over the edge, and about to begin his descent. There is neither direction nor purpose in Downing Street. Above all there is no political will. Poor Blair has reached the status of a posthumous prime minister. The EU referendum shambles was one example of this terrifying drift, Tuesday’s panicky speech on immigration another. As ever it was driven by short-term terrors — in this case the accession of central European countries to the EU on Monday. Tony Blair resorted to his exhausted Third-Way formula — no open door, but no fortress Britain either — but that rhetorical device is no longer any use. His practical solution, a clampdown on social housing for economic migrants, was an embarrassment. It flatly contradicted his claim, made only three weeks ago, that ‘the housing shortage is not a function of immigration’.
There has always been the suspicion that Tony Blair was in crucial respects an invention, with no true identity, always dependent for definition on outside figures rather larger and more vivid than himself. All studies of the Prime Minister — Jon Sopel’s essay, John Rentoul’s longer volume, doubtless Anthony Seldon’s keenly awaited biography due this summer — bring this point sharply to the surface.
But till last year it remained possible to argue — many did — that the Prime Minister possessed a political personality all of his own. Then the loss of Alastair Campbell, such a powerful and dominating figure as Downing Street director of communications, provided the conditions for a laboratory test of whether there was indeed such a thing as Blair the flesh-and-blood politician.
I half expected that without the brooding, bullying, obsessive and maniacal Campbell around the place all the time, Blair might grow into a more genuine and more confident figure. According to inside reports, Downing Street has indeed become more relaxed and less frenzied. But the essential point is that rather than emerge as a figure in his own right, Tony Blair has collapsed. He has become helpless, incoherent, out of control, of little use either as a national or as a party leader.
Nor has a powerful adviser replaced Campbell. The new director of communications, David Hill, is a nice man doing his best. Baroness Morgan, the so-called director of government relations, has a bigger role. But she is a walking calamity, bearing heavy responsibility for last summer’s shambolic reshuffle and now being blamed for the referendum debacle. Some expected Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff, to come forward and claim his inheritance, but he lacks the psychic force. Of those around Blair, only Peter Mandelson is capable of providing the service Blair needs. But the signs are that part of the recent truce with Gordon Brown involves keeping Mandelson, who was not in the loop over the referendum, out of the picture. As things stand, Tony Blair is quite incapable of dealing with the series of crises that confront him over the next few months: Iraq, immigration, the June elections, and July’s comprehensive spending review, which will be used once again by the Chancellor as a means of asserting his domestic hegemony.
When there is a vacuum, power drifts elsewhere. Nothing about the last few weeks can be understood without grasping this elementary political fact. All the noise — the shift on the referendum, Charles Clarke’s admirable mutiny, the Prime Minister’s sad attempt to regain the initiative over immigration — flows directly from this novel and perilous state of affairs. All the newspaper headlines of the last three weeks boil down to just one thing: a fight to the death over Tony Blair’s political corpse.
The most instructive figure in all this is Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. Jack Straw is a second-line politician. This is what makes him so interesting. He moves, while the larger beasts are still torpid. In 1993, as Mark Stuart’s important new biography of the last Labour party leader will show, he was already plotting against John Smith on behalf of Tony Blair. For six years from 1997 he was subservient, to a tragic extent, to Blair in No. 10. But since the turn of this year little Straw has been out on manoeuvres, making his dispositions for the coming regime. Jack Straw has converted himself from a client of Tony Blair to a client of Gordon Brown. Something similar, but more dignified, has been going on in the case of Robin Cook. The difference is that Cook will use muscle as well as a certain amount of necessary ingratiation to reach his accommodation with Brown. Cook’s allies say that he will, when the vacancy arises, stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour party: he should win by acclamation. When he sits at Gordon Brown’s Cabinet table Cook, though not Straw, will sit there as a politician in his own right.
The reality is that the vacuum in No. 10 has been filled by the will to power in the Treasury. What remains of the New Labour project is already flitting to No. 11. Even Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s ‘political consultant’, is said to be keen to reach an accommodation. As for the Chancellor, obscure hints about his characteristically perverse dispositions for when he attains power have started to emerge: he and Sarah Brown do not intend either to live in Downing Street or to make use of Chequers.
All that remains to be settled is the mechanism for a handover of power. The Conservative party was much better at removing leaders whose time had gone. There is no Labour equivalent of the ‘men in grey suits’ who provided such sterling service in the days when there were still Conservative prime ministers. Some government MPs have started to discuss the dramatic weapon of a ‘stalking horse’ candidate for the party leadership, which worked so well against Margaret Thatcher. But Labour party rules, carefully constructed in the 1980s to head off a challenge from the Left, make this unwieldy. No less than 20 per cent of the parliamentary party, an unthinkable 80 members, must put their name to the nomination.
The key point is to persuade the Prime Minister to go of his own accord. Good sources say that the matter is constantly on his mind, and that he is constantly asking his advisers when is the best time to go. He has probably not yet decided. There is a two- or three-month window this summer when he can take his leave, opening the way to the formality of a late-summer leadership contest followed by the coronation of Gordon Brown in the autumn. It’s no use pretending that it would be a happy exit, or the way he would have liked it. He will hate leaving with the Iraq catastrophe, his one lasting legacy, unresolved. But this forlorn Prime Minister has lost the ability to drive events forward, and he would be best advised to get out with some dignity while he can rather than remain where he is, at the mercy of events and treacherous colleagues.