It is now clear that the most important event of the 2005 general election took place before campaigning formally started, when Downing Street aides travelled to Scotland to broker a deal between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the Easter weekend. The settlement was reached on the Chancellor’s terms, as Wednesday’s Labour election manifesto suggested. Tony Blair has published three manifestos since 1997. This is the first in which the cover has not shown an exclusive picture of the Prime Minister. This year he is presented more as a member of a team.
The second result of the Easter Concordat was the emotionally harrowing party political broadcast shown to television viewers on Monday night. It was hard to watch the film of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair working happily together, made by the Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, without coming over ill. Minghella’s film was a fraud on the British public, and its claim that the relationship between the two men could be compared to a ‘marriage’ was an offence under the Trade Descriptions Act. The two men hate each other and the assertion that they can work together is false, as the events of the last four years show. Gordon Brown claimed last week that Tony Blair was a ‘trusted leader’. It is amazing that Brown is prepared to tell the British people to trust Tony Blair, while he himself has repeatedly refused to deny the assertion, made in Robert Peston’s scrupulous book, that he routinely tells Tony Blair ‘there is nothing you could tell me now that I could ever believe’. Minghella’s broadcast was as fake as the 2001 manifesto pledge not to raise top-up fees, and in due course this wretched piece of deception will be regretted by all involved, most of all Minghella.
The third manifestation of the Easter Concordat has been the emergence of Brown’s people at the heart of the election campaign, and the consequent downgrading of Tony Blair’s allies. Ed Balls, the Chancellor’s former Treasury aide, is the most important of the first group. Balls has a reputation — well founded or not I hesitate to say — for especially venomous briefings against the Prime Minister on behalf of the Chancellor. He is suddenly established as an ubiquitous presence.
The most astonishing moment of the election campaign to date came on Monday morning. Balls, suddenly finding himself on a party platform, took the opportunity to rubbish proposals for pensions reform put forward by the Leader of the House, Peter Hain. Balls, still in his mid-thirties, is technically just a prospective parliamentary candidate for the north-eastern constituency of Normanton. One would expect a measure of deference towards Peter Hain, a Cabinet minister nearly 20 years his senior. But he has been granted the authority to humiliate Hain publicly. He was only able to do this because he was speaking with the massive support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Balls’s intervention shows where the power lies in the Labour party as the general election approaches. His remarks were not just a humiliation for Peter Hain, but for the rest of the Cabinet and for Tony Blair, who has lost control. The biggest loser is Alan Milburn, who formally retains the post of Labour party campaign chief. Milburn has now been let down twice by the Prime Minister. The first betrayal came three years ago, when he was health secretary. Milburn was prepared to fight to impose a Blairite vision on the health service through autonomous foundation hospitals. But at a crucial stage support for Downing Street failed and Milburn was left to fend for himself. The Treasury tore the plan to shreds and Milburn’s idea, which could have provided a new template for British public services, was emasculated. These events disillusioned Milburn, and played a role in his decision to leave the Cabinet and return to the bosom of his family.
Tony Blair promised him the earth to come out of retirement and lead an election campaign for the third term which would exclude the Brownites. Until just two months ago all the talk from inside No. 10 was of a third term dedicated to radical reform of the public services, a final Blairite victory and Brown out of the Treasury on 6 May. That vision is now dead. Milburn has now twice learnt the hard lesson that the Prime Minister will not fight for his ideas, or his friends.
It is true that Tony Blair has solved the Brown problem for the time being. But in doing so he has created a new difficulty. The question must now be asked: what is the Prime Minister for? Until quite recently it was plausible to claim that he stood for a distinctive political philosophy associated with radical public service reform. Now that he has handed over domestic policy to the Chancellor, that claim no longer makes sense.
Until recently it was also the case that the Prime Minister, whatever his other faults, was a tremendous electoral asset. That makes no sense either. Over the last two months the Prime Minister has woken up to a horrible truth. Philip Gould, through his focus groups, and Labour MPs on the doorsteps have discovered the depths of the disenchantment, distrust and anguished hatred of the Prime Minister in the country at large. It was indeed this discovery that forced Tony Blair into the humiliating expedient of mortifying poor Milburn by re-calling Gordon Brown into the centre of the campaign as a prop.
This time last year the Prime Minister told the Guardian’s political editor Michael White that he would quit if he ever became an electoral liability. He is now just that. Even if Labour wins this election with a fairly substantial majority — still the likely outcome — the victory will be attributed to the strength of Gordon Brown. It will be accepted that it was achieved in spite of Tony Blair.
Blair loyalists continue to insist that he will remain in Downing Street right up to the next election, just as the Prime Minister pledged after last year’s party conference. His allies have been floating the idea that he might give up the Labour leadership at some stage in the next Parliament but remain prime minister, rather as Ramsay MacDonald did in the 1930s. They are deluding themselves. It will be hard for Tony Blair to govern for long. He already faces one impassable obstacle, namely the referendum on the European constitution. The government is quite capable of winning this referendum, but not led by Tony Blair, who has turned into a public menace on the very causes he most supports.
The Spectator kindly allowed me a two-month sabbatical late last year to research the collapse of integrity in British public life. The resulting book, The Rise of Political Lying, is published this week by the Free Press at £7.99.