Next Thursday Tony Blair will be re-elected with a fairly generous margin of victory: not less than a 50-seat majority, but probably not much more than 100. The Tories will make some progress, but not much. Anything more than 200 seats after 5 May, and Central Office should open a small case of champagne.
This comparative failure is by no means a matter for despair. The Conservatives have fought a sound campaign. The personal performance of Michael Howard is beyond praise. He has shown stamina, resilience and guts. Twice he has faced desperate situations, once when he took over the Tory leadership in late 2003, then again in November last year, when everything seemed on the verge of collapse. Each time he fought back.
Howard has imposed discipline and made no sloppy errors. He is a seasoned politician and a serious man. When he became leader, the Conservatives were facing collapse in the polls. There was a genuine chance they could be overtaken by the Liberal Democrats and sink back into third-party irrelevance. The fact that this is no longer the case is mainly down to Michael Howard, though Charles Kennedy also deserves his share of the credit.
So many senior Conservatives — Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo are the two most important examples, but there are dozens of other cases — were happy to serve in government, then showed no relish for opposition after 1997. The abiding glory of Michael Howard, and the reason that he will always have a place of great honour in the history of the Conservative party, is that he has not shied away from the sweaty, dreary business of opposition. The true test of the mettle of any human being is not how they handle success. It is how they cope with failure. This is what makes Michael Howard such a remarkable figure.
The second key point which can be confidently stated is that Tony Blair has enjoyed a wretched election. Last Sunday’s revelation in the Mail on Sunday of the contents of the Attorney General’s pre-war advice has polished off the remains of his reputation. At last February’s Downing Street press conference Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 News asked the Prime Minister whether the version of the Attorney General’s advice presented to Parliament accurately reflected the legal opinion given on 7 March 2003. Tony Blair replied that it did. It is now clear that it did not, and that Lord Goldsmith stated that the war might be illegal. The Prime Minister is busted.
As recently as last month his closest allies were musing loudly and confidently about the removal of Gordon Brown followed by four definitive years of New Labour. Now the best that can be hoped for is a smooth succession by Gordon Brown after 5 May. Even this modest ambition is far from guaranteed. The Prime Minister’s authority is so damaged in his own party that many Labour candidates are campaigning on a blatantly anti-Blair ticket. One of them, Bob Marshall-Andrews in Medway (for whom I am strongly disposed to go and canvass) has announced that he will agitate openly for Blair’s departure after 5 May. It is a sign of the gross institutional bias of the British newspaper press and broadcasting media that Marshall-Andrews’s astonishing remark generated almost no interest, compared with the week-long spectacle provoked when poor Howard Flight departed from official Tory policy at a private meeting.
The issue of the succession will start at once after 5 May, causing much disruption to Tony Blair’s Cabinet plans. The hapless Prime Minister has no freedom of action. Instead he will humiliatingly be forced to take account of the trenchant views of Gordon Brown. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is a case in point. Supposing Straw wins Blackburn, an outcome which cannot quite be guaranteed, and he wishes to remain in post. The signs are that Tony Blair yearns to sack him. But Brown is fighting Straw’s cause. John Prescott, who has turned during the course of this campaign into a wholly preposterous figure, is another subject of conjecture. There is talk from within Downing Street that he will shortly step down as deputy leader of the Labour party. The purpose of this manoeuvre is to permit Gordon Brown to take over, and gain control of the party machinery. Downing Street sources say that Brown has been promised complete control of the domestic agenda, leaving Tony Blair with his feeble hegemony in foreign affairs and defence (a subject which was barely touched on in the Labour manifesto. It is a matter of disgrace that, at a time when British troops are engaged in so many theatres of war, national defence has played no role in the election debate). But that means that the Prime Minister is powerless, for it is impossible that the British people would ever trust him to take us into another war.
The triumph of the Chancellor has created a very interesting set of problems within the Cabinet. It must be presumed that Blair-supporters like John Reid, Charles Clarke, Alan Johnson and Alan Milburn wish to continue their political careers after the Prime Minister departs. Till now their strategy has been to unite against Brown. But now they are all faced with the conundrum of how to work alongside the Chancellor — something much more easily said than done. Some, like the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, may find the task impossible. For him Tony Blair’s surrender to Brown is a disaster.
It is likely that Tony Blair and Michael Howard will fade out of politics together, in about two years’ time. It would be a calamity for the Tories if Michael Howard emulates John Major and William Hague and quits instantly in the wake of defeat. Howard’s job is only half done. Having saved the party from oblivion in this campaign, he must turn it into a party of government in time for the next. The weakness of the Tory 2005 campaign is the failure to present a large and generous political vision of British society and government under the Conservatives, and Michael Howard’s final duty will be to oversee a grand redefinition and rediscovery of Conservative passion and ideas.
Michael Howard’s and Tony Blair’s careers have followed curiously parallel paths for two decades. In the 1980s Howard was the powerful figure, shadowed by Tony Blair first at Environment and then at the Home Office. Now the roles are reversed as they head their respective parties. Both men face defeat in this election: Howard at the hands of the British electorate and Tony Blair at the hands of Gordon Brown. History, though, will judge Howard far more highly. Next week Tony Blair will be the tragic protagonist in a strange drama. The voters will vote, open-eyed, for a known and proven liar. It has always been conventionally held that once a British politician is proved to have shown bad faith, he will be thrown out of office at the first opportunity. Not so this time. In the long term the public will never forgive Tony Blair for making them his accomplice in this immoral act.