The final days of Tony Blair

01.03.06 Publication:

British politics

The final days of Tony Blair

If Britain´s prime minister is not thinking about stepping down, he should be


ONCE upon a time Britain had a long-serving Labour prime minister, one who had won four general elections. He showed no signs of quitting. But suddenly, on March 16th 1976, Harold Wilson surprised everyone by announcing his resignation. Thirty years later, today´s even longer-serving Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, also shows no sign of quitting, even though on the eve of the Wilson-resignation anniversary he was forced to rely on the votes of the Conservative opposition in order to get his education reforms through the House of Commons. Unlike Wilson, Mr Blair remains young and in good health. But he too may be thinking of springing a surprise. He certainly should be pondering it.

For a battler like Mr Blair, who has a strong and often admirable conviction that he is right and his opponents wrong, it will always be hard to stand down. That may be especially true just when he has won a parliamentary vote, on school reforms that, even in their watered-down form, he holds dear. His reluctance will be reinforced by his own doubts about whether his all-but-inevitable successor, Gordon Brown, will really carry on his reforms in health and education, and by his natural resentment at Mr Brown´s often disruptive and petulant behaviour during their nine years in office together. And there is Iraq, the invasion of which has its third anniversary on March 19th: Mr Blair´s decision to take part in that venture is the single biggest reason why he is loathed by many Labour MPs but also the main reason why he is so admired across the Atlantic. Little by little, British troops are being withdrawn from the relatively peaceful areas of southern Iraq in which they have been based. No doubt Mr Blair would prefer to stay on until he can say that the British job has been done and the withdrawal has been a success.

No one likes to leave a powerful and important job. And the after-life for a prime minister is a particularly empty one, professionally speaking. For professional speaking is one of the few things he can do. Any private job, except perhaps in a charity, is likely to be a come-down or else highly controversial. Any job in international organisations grand enough for him to consider will almost certainly be unavailable, for other countries would not want such a leading, sometimes bruising Briton as secretary-general of the United Nations or president of the European Commission. Yet that will be true whether he stands down this summer or (as the political consensus has it) in 2007 or, as would fit with his public promise before last year´s general election, in 2008-09. The case for staying longer has to rest on what he could hope to achieve by doing so and what effect his further tenure could have on his reputation.

Iraq offers no argument for delay. Whether that country descends into civil war or struggles to its democratic feet is not something over which Mr Blair will have any real influence. The course for a gradual British withdrawal, as security in southern Iraq is handed over to Iraqi soldiers and police, is already set. There is no reason to believe that Mr Brown would change it. Like it or not, Iraq´s effect on Mr Blair´s reputation is already beyond his reach.

There is, though, a case in domestic policy and politics. Mr Blair´s main achievement has been to consolidate the pro-market reforms begun by Margaret Thatcher and, after a wasted first term, to extend them into health and education. He has achieved nothing radical in either field. But by forcing through in 2004 the introduction of tuition fees for universities he opened the possibility for future governments to extend that financial freedom and give universities a chance to compete with their far-better-funded American rivals. The schools reform that was passed this week was timid, but useful: it will grant more freedom and flexibility to schools, and introduce more competition for pupils and funding (see article). In the National Health Service, too, he has introduced new market and financial disciplines as well as encouraging private firms to add to the NHS´s capacity.

There is more to be done. It will be vital, as financial pressures begin to bite on hospitals, that the health secretary and the prime minister do not shy away from tough decisions about which should close and which should merge. A new chief executive for the NHS needs to be recruited to enforce that process, and new laws are needed to establish an independent health regulator to police the competition that is due to start in 2008. Energy policy too needs tough decisions if it is to be made coherent, both in response to high prices and to climate change, especially if nuclear power is to be revived. The public-pension system needs an overhaul, but that, being costly, is politically unpopular. And there will be controversies over the replacement or extension of the Trident nuclear weapons (see article) and over reforms to incapacity benefit. These are just the sort of things a determined, battling prime minister might want to take on, perhaps especially one who no longer has to worry about the next general election—because he has pledged not to fight it.

But does he really want to take them on? And does he stand a good chance of success? Those are the questions he needs to ask himself now. The fact that he had to rely on Tory votes to pass his schools bill over the heads of 52 Labour rebels ought not to worry him as much as it might his party: that there is a centrist consensus over many policies is flattering, not worrying. After the next general election, coalition politics could well be the name of Britain´s game.

What Mr Blair cannot afford to do is to rest on his laurels. That would be a poor option given that his eager successor is sitting impatiently next door. Mr Brown is not now stirring up Labour MPs´ rebelliousness but he might if he sees Mr Blair merely marking time or—worse—damaging Mr Brown´s own future chances of electoral success.

From the nation´s point of view, a Tony Blair able and willing to push through the necessary reforms might well be a good option. But the case for preferring him to quit sooner rather than later is one based on the gradual erosion of that ability as time passes and the power of patronage disappears. The entire country already knows that Mr Brown will in due course become prime minister. Even more important, all actual and potential ministers do too. No one knows what he will be like in that job, despite his quite successful tenure as chancellor of the exchequer. Next week Mr Brown will present his tenth budget but it will offer no clues as to what he would do on health or education or energy or even pensions. The only way to find that out is to have him move next door, to 10 Downing Street—and with sufficient time to evaluate him before he feels it legitimate to call an early general election.

Mr Blair still benefits from a high international reputation, despite Iraq and despite squabbles within the European Union. He has set domestic policy, especially on health and education, on a better course. But only if he feels absolutely sure that he is capable of driving his health and other reforms through during the next two years should he stay longer. To do that, after nine wearying years in office, would be quite a task. Better, surely, for him to quit while he is still ahead.