Blair Faces Uncertain Future

IT'S NEVER GOOD to use your best material before its time. "No backing down," Tony Blair once said. "Backbone, not backdown, is what Britain needs." The only problem is he said it in 1998 when he'd been prime minister for barely a year, and nobody seriously expected him to back down on anything yet.

Blair Faces Uncertain Future

IT'S NEVER GOOD to use your best material before its time. "No backing down," Tony Blair once said. "Backbone, not backdown, is what Britain needs." The only problem is he said it in 1998 when he'd been prime minister for barely a year, and nobody seriously expected him to back down on anything yet. What could he say now, when he was in real trouble?

The mood of the Labour party as it gathered in the southern resort city of Bournemouth for its annual conference was almost giddily nervous. So much had happened in the year since the previous gathering. So very much indeed.

A war in Iraq. The deaths of 51 British soldiers. The refusal of many Iraqis to embrace the British and American troops as liberators. The failure, so far, to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been Blair's main reason for joining the invasion. The BBC's allegation that Blair's government had "sexed up" intelligence reports to make the WMD threat seem more menacing. And most shocking of all, the apparent suicide of David Kelly, the weapons expert whose unattributed comments had been the basis of the BBC report.

For the first time, polls are finding majorities saying they don't trust what Blair says. His communications chief and most trusted lieutenant, Alastair Campbell, resigned over the summer, a concession to the growing belief that the Blair government is obsessed with "spin."

Domestic politics has been offering less and less respite from the agony of Iraq. The Blair government's policies on crime, immigration, health care and universities have led to increasing criticism from the big unions and ordinary working-class folk who form the core of Labour support. Blair advocates "top-up fees" of more than $6,000 per year to university tuition, payable through a surtax once the student is working after graduation. He wants Britain's best hospitals to have unprecedented autonomy from the state-run National Health Service. For a lot of supporters of the party he rechristened New Labour after he became its leader in 1994, he has been putting too much New and not enough Labour into the mix.

In a sense, the real surprise is that it has taken this long for the going to get rough. Nearing the 6 ½-year mark, Blair is the longest continuously serving Labour prime minister in the 103-year history of the party. Even so, with the Conservatives in disarray under Iain Duncan Smith, yet another in that party's series of ineffectual leaders, Blair can afford to sink a little lower yet before Labour is in any danger of losing the next election.

Blair remains a subject of almost totemic fascination among Britons. The fastest-rising paperback on the Observer's best-seller list is Sue Townsend's ribald satire, Number Ten, about a very Blairish prime minister who tours the nation disguised in drag to get back in touch with ordinary people. A television drama about Blair's rivalry with his finance minister, Gordon Brown, was the hottest item of the broadcast week. It was preceded by an even more amazing pseudo-documentary in which Blair's recent behaviour was analyzed by teams of psychologists for evidence of pathology.

At one point, the TV screen showed a bookish fellow from the University of Essex explaining the significance of Blair's transformation from a leader who was starved for affection into a leader who does what he wants, regardless of public opinion. "In Jungian psychology, we often note that an extreme position often swings over to its polar opposite," the professor explained calmly. "It's actually, I'm afraid, in many individuals a sign of neurosis."

Well. What's a prime minister to do, when he's sinking in the polls and the TV networks are speculating about his mental stability? Fortunately, Blair still has a lot of allies on the government benches. They fanned out for days before his climactic conference speech to soften up public opinion with horror stories about the Conservative alternative. "Don't ever forget the sheer misery of that Tory legacy, which is being referred to from time to time," John Prescott, the very old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes deputy prime minister, told the delegates.

It was an effective message, so much so that the anti-Blair rebel fringe did what it could to push back. Clare Short resigned from the Blair cabinet in protest against its handling of its involvement in postwar Iraq. She was everywhere at this conference, trying to persuade delegates that opposition to Blair was the purest expression of loyalty to Labour values.

At a debate organized by the Independent newspaper, she addressed what amounted to the key question of the week: "What is a Labour government for?" "One probably shouldn't begin a definition with a negative," she said, making it clear she was about to begin her definition with a negative, "but clearly a Labour government isn't just for keeping a Labour government."

John Reid, the newly minted health minister and a faithful Blair acolyte, was on hand to say, in effect, that that's just what a loser would say. "For many, many years it was not entirely held as a legitimate objective of the Labour party to form a Labour government." As the Blair forces often do, he urged the party not to become its own worst enemy.

And here came the first bit of good news for the Blairites: the party still seems disposed to help them out. Reid and Short, inevitably, got into a slanging match about Iraq. When a couple of delegates applauded Reid's defence of the invasion, Short noted, snidely: "That's two."

The woman sitting next to me in the audience shouted, "Three!" and started clapping. Others joined in.

Short shrugged. "Fifteen."

A man at the back shouted a tennis metaphor: "Fifteen-love!" Short was, indeed, having trouble scoring any points with this crowd.

So by the time Blair arrived for his keynote address, there was ample evidence he had defenders in the grassroots, as well as detractors. Still, he took the podium wearing a look barely short of utter dread. "So what do we do then?" he asked, barely a minute into his 50-minute address. "Give up on it? Or get on with it? That's the question."

That was the choice his speech posed, the eternal choice between hard decisions and easy surrender. His tone, though, was new: not resolute, but fragile, almost beseeching. He let the delegates know he's had a rotten year. "Why is it so tough?" Simply because "government's tough. Opposition was easy. All our MPs had to do was go back to their constituents and blame it on the government." Pause for effect. "Some of them still do."

He promised, vaguely and quite unconvincingly, to be less of a "top-down" leader. He promised to consult, but not to change his mind as a result of any consultation. And indeed, when delegates later passed motions decrying John Reid's plan for health-care decentralization, Blair and Reid gave no sign of any intention to change their minds.

It was time for backbone, not backdown, as apparently it always is when you're Tony Blair. "Any politician can do the popular things," he said. "I know - I used to do a few of them." But what was needed now was discipline for the real long haul - not just an unprecedented third consecutive Labour government, but "a historic realignment of the political forces shaping our country and the wider world."

Truth be told, it was all a bit of a mishmash. Blair presented himself as a humbled man, but not particularly humble. Ready to listen, but not before he had explained that no amount of talking would change his mind. "I've not got a reverse gear," he shrugged.

It won him a seven-minute standing ovation, the longest he's had in 10 years of conference speeches. It did not produce any weapons of mass destruction or a nation of grateful Iraqis. It did not thaw the deep-freeze in Britain's relations with France or, in itself, make the creaky National Health Service any more efficient. The day after his speech, a judge ruled that the government must pay for a woman's trip to France to have her hip replaced, because the NHS had failed to perform the operation in a reasonable time.

The Tories remain a mess. Despite a three-way tie in the polls - the centrist Liberal Democrats, who have never held power, are the other party - most analysts expect Labour will still manage to win the next election without much trouble.

How much longer Blair can last is not entirely the same question. His closest ally and fiercest rival, Gordon Brown, has become steadily more brazen in his ambition to succeed Blair. Other candidates for the succession are hovering.

A voice of conscience? Robin Cook, who quit the Blair cabinet over Iraq but is orders of magnitude more impressive than Clare Short, was everywhere at this conference, showing off his plummy accent and prosecutorial logic.

An even harder centre-right line? David Blunkett, the blind, tough-as-nails home secretary, is driving the crackdown on crime and illegal immigration that promises to be a centrepiece of Labour's domestic agenda for at least the next year. On the conference's last day, he casually filleted his opposition critics, suggesting he is not the kind of guy you want to get into a fight with.

Blairism in new garb? Alan Milburn, a fierce Blair loyalist, stepped down as health minister in the spring to spend more time with his family, but pointedly refuses to rule out a future run at the leadership. "Look," he told the Sunday Times, "how do I know how I'll feel in a year or two's time?"

That's a pretty tight deadline, coming from a guy who's supposed to be one of Blair's biggest fans. Like the clouds over Bournemouth and the creases in the prime minister's brow, it suggests Tony Blair's troubles are only beginning.

Maclean's October 13, 2003