Melanie Phillips

8 May 2006

Don't write him off yet

Published in: Daily Mail

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Some seventy Labour MPs - going far beyond the 'usual suspects' to include previous loyalists - are said to be about to sign a letter giving Mr Blair three months to set out a clear timetable for an 'orderly transition of power'. This, they say, is to prevent Labour's record from being overshadowed by 'debilitating' speculation over his future.

This makes very little sense. In itself, such a timetable would only exacerbate the perception that this is a lame duck administration. And as for 'debilitating speculation', that is surely precisely what this letter has now intensified.

Such flannel conceals the real intention of these signatories, which is to prise Mr Blair's fingernails from the precipice to which he is clinging and promptly dispatch him into the political hereafter.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown came as near as he could to endorsing this potential coup while striving to give the appearance of loyalty. In letting fall from his lips phrases such as 'renewal' and 'the next stage of my political career' he was effectively projecting himself as Britain's properly designated Prime Minister who, through some unfortunate but temporary foul-up in the cosmic order, was not yet actually in post.

If Mr Blair believed that last week's uncharacteristically brutal reshuffle would put a stop once and for all to the attempts to unseat him, he was seriously misguided.

But if his enemies believe that they will lever him out in this way, they are also wrong. It is, of course, true that he has forfeited the trust and support of the country, and as a result lost control of his party and his government.

But from his point of view, why should he go? Only last year he won the election by a convincing majority. And because of his unwholesomely presidential view of his calling, he regards his party - as he has always done - merely as an irritating obstacle to be surmounted.

After all, is that not how he came to power in the first place? And so the louder his party screams that he must go, the more certain he is that he must stay.

Accordingly, his reshuffle was an attempt to get Project Blair back on track by throwing carpets of foam over all the fires breaking out around him. Thus he put his two most experienced firefighters into pole position. As Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett will do what she is told and not make disloyal overtures to Gordon Brown or box the government in over Iran, the two errors which almost certainly sealed Jack Straw's fate.

The peripatetic bruiser John Reid will sort out the mess in the Home Office by taking no more of the ineptitude and politically correct rubbish that has brought that great ministry to its knees. Alan Johnson will use his charm and sharpness to push through the education reforms over which Ruth Kelly so gratingly failed. John Prescott will no longer be able to do egregious damage to the country, while being kept sweet by staying nominally in office.

From Mr Blair's beleaguered position, all this doubtless makes a lot of sense. The problem is that it doesn't do a great deal for the rest of us; indeed, it veers between the out-of-touch and the outrageous.

In particular, it is disgraceful that the serially discredited Mr Prescott should retain his Cabinet seat, his salary and the perks of office - but none of its responsibilities. The taxpayer is thus being fleeced simply to enable the Prime Minister to maintain internal Labour Party discipline. The public is now literally paying for his political weakness.

The real problem, however, is that rearranging the furniture in this way does not address the fact that the building itself is crumbling.

The scandals, the sleaze and the incompetence are all merely symptoms of a deeper rot. The essence of the problem which has now finally engulfed Mr Blair is that the New Labour project was built upon a series of fantasies, which either distracted attention from or exacerbated the problems that the country faced.

Thus the difficulties at the Home Office are rooted in the promotion of human rights law, multiculturalism and the secret policy of mass immigration. At education, they derive from the lunatic 'all must have prizes' approach which has sacrificed excellence on the altar of equality.

At health - where Patricia Hewitt has survived the implosion of NHS finances probably because this is not yet sufficiently high on the public radar - they are caused by the fact that the NHS behemoth is simply unmanageable.

One of Mr Blair's fantasies is that he must stay on as leader in order to put right the problems he has so far failed to remedy. But he won't begin to do so until and unless he finally acknowledges the fault-line of fantasy running through New Labour.

British politics are now in a state of suspended animation. The government is all but paralysed. The chances of Mr Blair getting his way on future legislation without it once again being emasculated beyond recognition surely become ever more slim.

Mr Brown himself, meanwhile, remains an enigma. We are given to understand that he will administer political Viagra to the New Labour project, to give it a potency over which his colleagues can only fantasise and the rest of us remain agog.

Of course, once a momentum of decline like this has set in to an administration, anything can happen. But my guess is that even this monumental uproar will soon die down and we will stagger on as before.

This is mainly because the 'smooth and orderly transition' that is the apparent aim of this insurrection is yet another fantasy. The clash between Mr Blair and Mr Brown makes it impossible. Forcing Mr Blair out would make it doubly impossible. If Mr Brown were to be seen to have usurped the crown, it is likely that Labour's civil war, far from ending, would rage on.

The assumption among those pushing for Mr Blair to go is that Labour would gain from his imminent departure, while its electoral prospects would gravely diminish the longer he staggered on as a lame duck leader. But on the contrary - Labour's interests surely lie in Mr Blair staying on and Mr Brown taking over as near to the next general election as possible.

If he were to take over now, there would be time before the election for the voters to rumble his political Viagra as mere marketing hype. If he were to take over a few months before the next election, however, fair-minded Britain would be much more likely to see him as the new - if long stored - broom and give him a chance to prove himself. So the Labour party has a difficult choice. It can carry on with this insurrection against Mr Blair, which will damage both Mr Brown and its own electoral fortunes. Or it can bite its collective lip and hunker down behind its embattled leader and his flawed project - the only chance of something resembling an orderly transition that there can be.

The interests of the country, on the other hand, faced with prospect of government paralysis for the forseeable future, are a different matter altogether.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie