Two salient facts define the national political predicament this autumn. The first is a growing sense of disquiet about Tony Blair. Experts often speak of the lack of ‘trust’ which shows up in opinion polls. But there is more to it than that. People are beginning to sense that there is something rum about this Prime Minister, and that he is no longer quite 16 annas to the rupee.
In the normal course of events this sense of unease might translate into a general election defeat. But this brings me to the second singularity. While distaste for Tony Blair is palpably growing both within the Labour party and elsewhere, there is no agreement at all about an alternative.
The internal opposition to Tony Blair, after a summer of perfervid preparation, elected not to strike. This cowardly, though doubtless wise, decision has left the Prime Minister in place to fight the upcoming general election: that was the political importance of this week’s Labour conference in Brighton.
Meanwhile, there is no clear national alternative to Tony Blair. Neither Michael Howard for the Tories nor Charles Kennedy for the Liberal Democrats has emerged to lead a united national opposition. When there is a specific contest, Labour tends to lose. But opposition gravitates around the party most likely to win. There have been two London by-election contests in the past few weeks: in one New Labour was overturned by the British National Party, in another by the Socialist Alliance. In Hartlepool the Liberal Democrats emerged as contenders.
National polls reflect this incoherence. Far fewer voters support Tony Blair today than supported Neil Kinnock six months before the 1987 general election. In conventional circumstances this might prove fatal. But the anti-Blair vote is split between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Indeed all three parties are running neck and neck in the polls, and this suits the government reasonably well. The electoral system is so unfair that today’s voting configuration, if repeated at a general election, gives New Labour an easy Commons majority. There is a sense of paralysis in British politics: Labour back to its core vote, the Tories steadfastly refusing to collapse, and the LibDems not quite breaking through. Hence the ostentatious arrogance of so many Labour ministers this week, and the silent despair of Conservatives. The political mood reflects a universal expectation that an apathetic nation will despairingly re-elect an ever more despised prime minister in a general election to be held in late spring next year.
This was my conviction too, till I watched Tony Blair deliver his speech to the Labour party conference in Brighton on Tuesday. There is no question that those parts of the oration concerned with the domestic agenda read well, and it was comparatively well received by seasoned commentators, who concluded that it ‘did the job in the hall’.
I have had the chance to read the speech over in tranquillity, and it can only be described as disturbing. The essential quality a nation must look for in a prime minister is not charm, charisma or even vision. It is sanity and sound judgment. These qualities were absent. Tony Blair did not make the speech of a man who retains a firm grip on the outside world. This point emerged especially clearly from the section of the speech — reportedly delivered in the face of opposition from advisers at the Prime Minister’s personal insistence — which dealt with Iraq.
The Prime Minister set about misrepresenting the case against the opponents of war, falsely asserting that they failed to understand that the nature of terrorism changed after September 11. He then moved, through a series of catastrophic logical leaps, to a false conclusion — that the terrorists ‘have chosen this battleground because they know success for us in Iraq is not success for America or Britain, or even Iraq itself, but for the values and way of life our democracy represents’.
Actually it was America and Britain, not the terrorists, who chose Iraq for their battleground. But Tony Blair did not even try to explain why the invasion of the most secular country in the Middle East, with no meaningful link to al-Qa’eda, played a role in his great battle against Islamic terrorism. The calibre of the Prime Minister’s argument would have disgraced a sixth-form schoolboy. His mixture of naivety, disingenuousness and apocalyptic conviction chilled the blood. ‘The party knows,’ asserted the Prime Minister, ‘the depth of my commitment to the Middle Eastern peace process.’ This from the man who only six months ago stood unblinking beside George Bush in the White House rose garden as the US President tore up the road map for peace. Don’t just believe me. Go and read the speech yourself on the Labour party website.
The Prime Minister can no longer readily tell the difference, supposing he ever could, between truth and convenient falsehood. Consider this phrase, uttered in plangent tones to the Labour party audience — ‘I only know what I believe.’ The Prime Minister meant that his mistakes over Iraq were forgivable because they were made in good faith. But that argument does not work at all. We expect good faith from our leaders, of course, but more important still we expect them to make the right judgments. Consider the catastrophic epistemological consequences of the Prime Minister’s statement. It could be used to justify not just false claims about WMD, but the existence of green cheese on the moon, the invasion of Iran, or anything whatever. No organisation would ever put an employee in a position of responsibility who claimed to act on the Prime Minister’s astonishing axiom.
I reached the melancholy conclusion, while listening to Tony Blair in Brighton on Tuesday, that it is unsafe and reckless to leave this particular prime minister in Downing Street. He has the loosest connection with reality of any premier since Anthony Eden. This would be dangerous enough at any time, but calamitous at this peculiarly troubled moment in the fortunes of the world. Grave decisions, upon which the security not just of Britain but of the world depends, need to be made in the next few months. According to the word from Washington, George W. Bush means to flatten Fallujah the moment he secures victory in this November’s presidential election. There is terrifying talk that Washington will smile on an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. A British prime minister may soon need to break violently with a neoconservative United States government, revalidated by the November elections. Nor is that all. Decisions must be made about whether to leave British troops in Iraq, reinforce them or take them out. Tony Blair’s naive messianic fervour could not be less appropriate for the difficult times in which we live. It is time for a different kind of statesman — one with sober judgment and a sense of the terrible intractability of events.