August has been a very bad month for Tony Blair. A mood of surly, pettish despair has overtaken the Labour party. Ministers, protected by official cars and red boxes, are scarcely aware of this. But it is out there, palpable and menacing. New Labour has reached a dead end, and nobody knows what to say or do.
The government’s foreign policy is not far from collapse, though this too is not yet apparent to ministers. The Defence Secretary John Reid wrote an article in the Times last week which attacked the press for its failure to celebrate the many successes of the Iraqi invasion. Dr Reid’s article was not that distant in tone from Vice-President Cheney’s remarkable recent announcement that the insurgency is on its last legs. It is very difficult for governments to admit even small errors; perhaps impossible to come to terms with graver miscalculations.
On the domestic front there is greater cause for concern than at any stage since New Labour took power. Unemployment is rising remorselessly, personal debt has hit record levels, government revenues are slowing. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been obliged to fiddle his ‘golden rule’, guaranteeing that the government will balance the national finances across the economic cycle, and has thus destroyed his credibility.
It is certain that taxes must rise soon. Till now Gordon Brown’s tax increases have been creamed off the top of a buoyant economy. The next round will hurt because circumstances are already hard. The stage is now set for a vicious Budget next spring. The Chancellor most likely wants to get the pain out of the way at once — while Tony Blair is still Prime Minister.
But there is something more intangible at work — the sense of drift, bordering on despair, within the Labour movement. There is no enthusiasm and little hope, even among those zealous former adherents of Tony Blair. Rather than talk of the Prime Minister with bright-eyed enthusiasm, as they used to, these zealots now refer to him rather as one might to an aged relative who is obstinately and rather inconveniently clinging to life.
This mood was clear when I attended Robin Cook’s funeral two weeks ago. There were all kinds of defences for the Prime Minister’s absence: he didn’t much like Cook anyway, he needed his holiday, he spends far too little time with his family, security concerns, many of the congregation preferred him to stay away. All valid, but any real Labour leader would absolutely have made it his business to attend this kind of occasion.
There was a period last autumn when Downing Street floated the idea that he should remain as Prime Minister but give up the party leadership. There are precedents for this kind of arrangement, most notably Ramsay MacDonald after the 1931 economic crisis. The idea seems to have been abandoned. Tony Blair nevertheless conducts himself as if he had severed his connection with the Labour party in any case. He seems to have decided to spend his final years as Prime Minister in the same way as he will doubtless spend his life after politics, as a member of the international celebrity set. His time in Barbados seems to have included a day trip to Mustique, home of royalty and the super-rich (where the Labour MP Shaun Woodward, coincidence or not, has a holiday home).
Tony Blair now treats the Labour party in the same way as absentee landlords used to deal with their Irish estates: formal visits very occasionally interrupt an otherwise rigorous regime of malign neglect. There is a political price to pay for this course of action, but perhaps Tony Blair doesn’t care that much any more. He will leave no legacy to the Labour party: Robin Cook dead will have more effect on the next Labour government than a living Tony Blair.
This is the political background to the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. It could scarcely be more favourable. It means that whoever emerges as Tory leader this November has a very strong chance indeed of entering No. 10 Downing Street as the Labour project collapses over the next few years.
There are two schools of thought within the Conservative party about how to take advantage of the staggering opportunity which has been created by the end of Blairism. David Cameron and his Tory modernisers have a very clear answer. The Cameron camp believes that while the Prime Minister will leave no legacy inside the Labour party, he will nevertheless leave a massive legacy among the voters. That is why, just as the Labour party turns its back on Tony Blair, David Cameron’s Tories have stepped forward to embrace him. They judge that the departure of the Prime Minister is creating a vacuum that they can fill with aplomb.
This perception explains practically everything about the Cameron campaign. His speeches, said to be drafted by the Tory MP and Blair apologist Michael Gove, have been laboriously modelled on the Prime Minister’s early efforts. They are so close in style as to be almost identical: the same piety of tone, staccato delivery and mania for verbless sentences. In last week’s London Evening Standard the commentator Nick Cohen brilliantly identified the way both Tony Blair and his young admirer remorselessly search out bland statements of the breathtakingly obvious, promise heroic support for positions nobody disputes, and identify false dichotomies cunningly designed to create an erroneous impression of original statesmanship.
Cameron and the clever men and women who surround him move effortlessly among the Blairites, and have done so for several years. His adviser Rachel Whetstone, for example, is the business partner of Tim Allan, who is New Labour ‘family’. As Gordon Brown’s Labour party squeezes the life out of poor Tony Blair in the months and years ahead, Cameron’s Tories want to occupy the radical centre of British politics which suddenly becomes vacant.
This is a highly intelligent strategy (many of its insights are set out rather well in a Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet by Stephen Pollard published this week), but there are drawbacks. David Cameron strikes me as too nice, decent and honest a man to successfully emulate the Prime Minister. A lot of paddling under the surface goes on with Tony Blair: the bland, polished exterior conceals limitless resources of guile and a shocking capacity for personal betrayal which I hope that Cameron does not possess.
Nor is that all. There may come a time when the nation, and not just Labour, loses its fondness for Blair. The really special point about the Prime Minister is that he possesses a breathtaking ability to reach out beyond core Labour supporters to the wider electorate. It may be that the candidate in the Tory leadership election who most readily possesses that gift is Ken Clarke. He has it not thanks to a hastily acquired mastery of the verbless sentence, but just by being himself.