Two nights ago, Channel 4 screened a 90-minute drama called ‘The Deal’ the broadcast of which has sent the British press into something of a tizzy.
I watched it and found it quite gripping. Even those with little time for the jungle warfare of the Westminster village could not fail to have been impressed by the consumate performances and razor-sharp direction. Nor was the enjoyment dependent upon any sort of plot twist or surprise ending. Everyone knew in advance what is was going to be about and how it was going to end. I suppose it was a voyeuresque appetite for power-play and intrigue that had so many (including me) tuning in.
‘The Deal’ dramatised the close friendship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown throughout the many years that the Labour Party languished in hopeless opposition. Both men (allegedly) knew that the Party had to be reformed in order to become electable and, with equal conviction, both reckoned that Gordon Brown was the man who was born to lead Labour to that new dawn. Or so it seemed. As Blair’s ambition and self-confidence grew, so Brown found himself outflanked. The climax (‘The Deal’) has Brown agreeing to step aside and let Blair stand for the leadership provided Blair would step down in his second term and hand the mantle over to Brown.
Tony Blair has publicly denied that any such ‘deal’ was agreed but few appear to believe him. Or, perhaps more accurately, they (and by ‘they’ I refer to Labour Party members) don’t care if there was or was not a ‘deal’: they want Blair out. This week, the Labour Party is holding its annual conference in Bournemouth on England’s South Coast and rare indeed is the pundit who is not predicting blood on the carpet (and running down the walls, splattered on the ceiling etc).
The mood is ominous. The grassroots are angry, the delegates are fuming and the Unions are beside themselves. They never liked Blair in the first place and now they really loathe him. His middle-class manner grates on them. His talk of reforming the public sector infuriates them. His point-blank refusal to give them that ‘old-time religion’ has left them seething. And then there is Iraq and his glad-handing with George Bush. For many, the final straw. The unpardonable sin. Not the sin of going to war, mind, but the sin of going to war with the Americans against the Arabs. Too much for some. They want payback.
The Labour grassroots still draws its inspiration from Havanna (the natural successor to Moscow) and they only tolerated Blair because he got them elected. They buttoned their lips and kept their own counsel while he trampled on their shibboleths in his rush to ‘markets’ and ‘consumer choice’. It was all hollow, of course, but rhetoric matters among people who have a hard time grasping reality.
But they sat on their hands and said nothing because the alternative was the Conservatives. Or it was. The poor, old Tories look unelectable now and no-one is scared of them anymore, least of all the unreconstructable of Labour Party who like the cut of Gordon Brown’s gib. They know he isn’t really ‘Old Labour’ either but he looks like Old Labour, he sounds like Old Labour, he even smells of Old Labour. He is dour and serious and principled and intense. Best of all, he isn’t Tony Blair.
Yesterday, Mr.Brown took his shot. He wants the job and everyone knows it. Today, it is the turn of the PM to address to Conference and he had better put on the performance of his life.
I have no doubt he will. Whatever else may or may not be said about Blair he is a polished act and I expect that, whatever he says, he will say it with passion, clarity and customary conviction. He will wrap that audience of surly refusniks around his finger and tickle all their erogenous zones in the way that only he can seem to manage. But, razzle-dazzle aside, the deeper truth will have escaped no-one and that truth is that Blair’s glory days may well be behind him now. From here onwards, it’s nothing but downside. There are no sexy missions for him anymore, just grim strife. For all his promise of reform to the public sector, but he cannot reform it. He can but tinker. His hope for the single currency is probably dashed. The EU Constitution has the potential to incite insurrection and the agenda in the Middle East (to the extent that there is an agenda at all) is being set in Washington.
Whichever way he turns, beartraps lie ahead. Nothing can make him look good anymore. Everything and anything will make him look bad. From being the most popular, shiny chappie in the known cosmos, Mr.Blair suddenly looks quite forlorn and rather isolated. The majority of his own Party cannot abide him, the press is at his throat and even his supporters are starting to tip-toe quietly away. It took a lot longer than 45 minutes but Blair has been damaged by Weapons of Mass Disillusion.
Would today be a good day to put a full stop on this brilliant career? He may not truly want to and few can doubt his will to battle the odds. But even he must realise that he cannot really win now. There are no trophies left.
If I was him, I would be tempted to call it a day and sign off while history is still inclined to be merciful. If he chose today to hand the baton over to Gordon Brown with a flourish, he will leave the stage as the man who made the Labour Party electable again and crushed the Tories. Maybe Mr.Blair has realised that that is as good as it is going to get. Maybe, today, he will close the ‘deal’.