Egotism, cliques and cowardly backstabbers – it’s politics after Blair
Only the deluded can believe that Brown is the solution to New Labour’s problems.
Those in the British Labour Party plotting to overthrow Tony Blair have achieved what many of us might have considered impossible. They have managed to make the prime minister look good, like a leader of high principle, compared to their low conniving.
The most successful Labour leader in history, the first to win three elections in a row, is being hounded from office less than 18 months after his last victory at the polls by a handful of snapping minnows, non-entities whom even experienced political journalists might be hard-pressed to recognise in the House of Commons bars. You do not have to be a supporter of Blair – and we at spiked are far from that – to see this tawdry spectacle as a new low in the degeneration of political life. The newspaper cartoons of Blair as the (relatively) giant Gulliver, pinned down by a mob of tiny assailants, might overstate the prime minister’s status. But they well illustrate the Lilliputian political standing of the opposition.
Whatever one thinks of Blair, he has at least been trying to act like a leader, albeit on the basis of his professed ‘inner self-belief’ rather than any outwardly obvious political principles. But what do those MPs involved in the revolt offer by way of an alternative? Which political issues or ideals motivate their attempt to oust Blair? You would search their circulating letter in vain for any mention of such matters. Their sole concern appears to be their personal prospects for re-election to parliament, and promotion within the government.
This is a cowardly coup, by those who lack the nerve even to demand that Blair goes immediately – surely the only logical stand to take, if they believe he is such a liability. Chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, the figure behind the coup and its intended beneficiary, is left looking like the biggest moral coward of all – mumbling mealy-mouthed words of support for Blair while manipulating his pet pygmies in the parliamentary party against him, and no mention of any political alternative.
But then, as sensible figures on all sides have observed, there are no ideological differences between the Blair and Brown camps. There is no left v right or Old v New Labour struggle for ‘the soul of the Party’ – something that was sold long ago. Even compared to Margaret Thatcher’s battles with the Tory ‘wets’ in her Cabinet, this is a contest devoid of political substance. Instead, as I have pointed out before, the Blair-Brown business is more like an exercise in the old-fashioned politics of a royal court, where cliques and factions based around individuals rather than ideologies manoeuvre for influence and access to the Crown. The impression of this carry-on as a poor man’s Shakespearean melodrama has only been strengthened over the past few days, by the sight of careerists and wannabe king-makers changing sides and stabbing backs, accompanied by cries of ‘treason!’.
Some now claim that foreign policy, especially in regard to Iraq and relations with the USA, will prove the big difference between Blair and Brown. It is hard to see how they know, since while Blair has fought a constant campaign in defence of the Iraqi adventure, Brown has been silent on the subject. In all these years, and with all his sympathetic contacts in the media, he has made no mention of any alternative foreign policy. It is not the only time the chancellor has gone AWOL from the front line of a political controversy.
We are left with a world of politics driven by nothing more noble than petty egotism. What does this promise for the future after Blair finally goes?
It has become a truism to say that Blair and his clique are detached from reality – a truth well-illustrated by that bizarre leaked memo, mapping out a triumphant legacy tour for his final year in office that will supposedly leave ‘the crowds wanting more’. But it would be very wrong to assume that Blair’s opponents have any better grasp of what is going on in the real world.
Their notion that Blair is the problem facing New Labour, and Brown the solution, is based largely on self-delusion (especially among those who dream of Brown bringing back ‘real Labour’ politics, whatever that might mean). To all intents and purposes, Blair is New Labour. The collapse of his authority only reflects the exhaustion of a project that was always short of political substance. Blair can at least claim to be the master designer of the image politics on which New Labour rose to power, the dominant personality in the new order of personality politics. By comparison Brown might seem a big beast among the backroom bean counters of the Treasury, but in public political terms he appears almost as Lilliputian as his acolytes. It is hard to imagine how replacing Blair with Brown could possibly begin to solve New Labour’s problems.
Blair made his ‘my time is up – next year’ speech during a visit to a school – a fitting backdrop for his resignation perhaps, given the role that his failed revolution in education, education, education has played in the decline of New Labour’s authority. It was also fitting, however, that he was greeted there with a protest by schoolchildren, organised by left-wing groups, all of whom said they hated Blair and wanted him to go, but none of whom could explain why beyond the usual lame stuff about being Bush’s poodle. Such an infantile emotional spasm seemed a fair summary of the emptiness of anti-Blair politics today.
The unfortunate fact, powerfully confirmed by recent events, is that in a political sphere dominated petty egotism, self-obsessed cliques and cowardly backstabbers, Blair really does look like a giant. His shadow has been cast over New Labour. His political legacy may be more image than substance, but behind him there is not even that. When he is gone, it appears that we will be left with the dull prospect of New Labour without its leading light, ‘Blairism’ without Blair.
Blair began his big pre-resignation speech in well-judged style by apologising to the British people for the embarrassing spectacle provided by the Labour Party over the past few days. But that is likely to be nothing compared to the embarrassments ahead. And so far as the future of politics under the Brownites is concerned, it appears that, to update New Labour’s anthem from Blair’s 1997 electoral triumph, Things Can Only Get Worse.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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