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Closing the deal

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’.

14 comments to Closing the deal

  • mark holland

    I don’t know how the Prime Minister keeps his cool. I’m sure I saw him nearly lose it on Channel Four news last year. Remember that ludicrous “earth summit” in Johannesburg? Blair upstaged by Mugabe ambush is the Telegraph’s headline. On TV you could see he was really pissed off and referring to Mugabe and his Namibian crony he said “these…” and there was a pause. His mouth moved as if he was about to say arseholes but his dimplomatic mode must have overridden the urge and he changed to “people”.

    I would love it if he freaked out. Love it! Tell the whole Labour party what a bunch of backwards, hateful, and ungrateful bastards they were. Bollocks to the lot of them. And then to finish tell them he was quitting there and then and going to live on a desert island.

  • Verity

    Well, Mark, I could warm to the exile-to-a-desert- island bit.

  • Andy Duncan

    Old Tony seemed quite chipper to me, on David Frost’s breakfast program, on Sunday. I even got that horrible feeling in my toe again, the one where I start feeling sorry for him, which turns to numbness, and then a desire to believe him again.

    He’d have made a fortune on evangelical telly in the US, before he became President, if he’d been born there.

    Though my brain resumed normality again, and came out of its swoon, when he said the General Taxpayer had to fund the NHS because without that help from the General Taxpayer, none of us would be able to afford private health care.

    If only David Frost, surely nearing the end of his illustrious career now, would make a stand for once:

    “The only reason people can’t afford private health care, in this country, Prime Minister, is because you and your Goodfella goons in government bleed them of so much free cash, in their role as the font of all wealth General Taxpayer, that they can hardly afford to take a piss in a 20p-charge lavatory, of their own free will. Maybe if you abolished that financial cess-pit, the NHS, and gave the people their money back, they’d do a damn better job than the armies of useless monkeys you employ in Whitehall to manage this rotten health service for them? What do you say to that, Prime Minister? Though on second thoughts, don’t bother. I never believe a word you say anymore, anyway.”

    But he never does, does he, old David. Oh well.

    I don’t see Blair getting to Christmas, or Spring at the latest, myself, but you never know. With no opposition around, maybe even a personally hated, despised, and disbelieved Tony Blair really can make it a third term victory.

    That British democracy should come to this.

    Let’s hope he does blow up this afternoon, though like you I doubt it. I’ll get some pop corn in, though, just in case! :-)

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    So what happens if Tone steps down? And what happens if he refuses and decides to battle it out?

  • Andrew Duffin

    Who was it said “I fight on. I fight to win.” ??

    Bliar is looking pretty similar now, isn’t he?

  • I’ve just seen him on telly, like you, David, expecting a blood bath. Did we get one? Oh no. Not even a few boos.

    He was brilliant. He shmoozed them in a way that made you wonder how come he had to settle for Cherie. As a salesman he is second to none. Shame about the product…

    The really great thing was how he was able to induce double think in his audience. Not only was be able to convince them that things were just great but he was also able to convince them that the same things were really crap and needed changing.

    They must feel like a right bunch of charlies right now. If, that is, it is possible for a bunch of charlies to feel such.

    There was one thing I found really encouraging though. More than once he referred to the 20th Century as having been the Conservative century and how he looked forward to the 21st Century being the progressive century. Fine by me if it means progressives doing conservative things in much the same way Conservatives did progressive things.

  • Verity

    Blair has never induced one nanosecond of double think in me. The first time I ever saw him on TV, I recognised him for the sleazeball he has proven himself, with such an abundance of evidence, to be. Anyone who falls for Blair’s spiel has very slender underpinnings of conviction.

  • Zathras

    I don’t pretend to be an expert on British politics or Tony Blair’s career. I am curious to know what his critics think the alternatives are.

    Do believers in a smaller state really think there are alternatives to Blair willing to implement policies closer to their views than his? Do believers in Old Labor socialism really think the collapsed Conservatives would not rebound if a post-Blair government tried to turn back the clock to the Callaghan government of 1978? I have to say this is not the way it looks to me. It looks rather more as if various political factions in Britain are blaming Blair for their own failings and weakness. Labor took the country as far left as it could in the late ’70s, and was rejected; advocates of the free market had a sympathetic ear in No. 10 for eleven years, and became a lonely minority as soon as she left. And both think it’s Tony Blair’s fault.

  • Verity

    Zathras, can you spell ‘dismantling our ancient liberties and pillars of state without our consent’? Can you spell selling 59m citizens down the river into Europe without our consent? Can you spell messianic dictatorship by one man and no democracy, even in the cabinet? Remind you of anyone?

  • Zathras

    Well, your rhetorical style makes you sound like an idiot and an hysterical one at that, but that is your problem. You still haven’t answered my question. What during the last six years have been the alternatives? What are the alternatives now?

    Whatever they are, no one of them seems to command anything like the support that Blair and his ideas do. That doesn’t make all of them, or any of them right as a matter of definition. It does mean Blair will get most of what he wants until most Britons agree on someone better.

    As for who he reminds me of, I’d say any of the several strong British Prime Minsters since the Lloyd George government. There wasn’t much democracy in their Cabinets either.

  • Verity

    Zathras, First, Tony Blair doesn’t have any ideas in his head, except that he is so totally wonderful that everyone must adore him just for being alive. Other than that, it’s pretty much a wasteland in there. Alastair Campbell and focus groups told him what ideas he had. Now Campbell is gone, uh – so to speak, serial resigner and multiple disgracee Peter Mandelson is back, again. It was Tony Blair who sent a memo round various ministers asking them to come up with “initiatives with which I can be personally associated”. He didn’t have any of his own. And it was such a modest request! Initiatives! It didn’t even have to be something that could be executed! All he wanted was something that could be announced and then forgotten about.

    William Hague would probably have been a viable alternative, but the bottomless vats of loathing that John Major had left behind meant the press never gave him a chance. They didn’t attack his policies. They attacked his choice of clothes. His accent. His girlfriend. They would have been as ruthless whoever else had been chosen as the Conservative leader. Indeed, they have been. All Blair had to be was not Tory.

    Right now you are right to enquire, and I cannot answer you. But empty-headed, vapid, self-regarding Tony Blair has been a disaster for Britain.

  • Zathras,

    That was ungentlemanly of you, even if Verity has not answered your question. What she is saying, I think, is that her focus is the direction of public policy, some of which is utterly undemocratic. You seem to be saying that politics in these islands has become irredeemably presidential. It ought to be that Verity is right, of course, and you are wrong. But I concede that the spirit of the age is otherwise.

    Still, with or without a charismatic leader the opposition must have faith in the electorate. It must construct its policy platform on a rational critique of the government and on coherent alternative policies. The rest is a matter for the people and their political maturity.

  • Antoine Clarke

    On a technical point what happens if the PM steps down, unlike the USA the procedure is not as smooth. Because the Prime Minister is the person who can gain the support of the majority of the House of Commons that means in practice that the decision is entirely an internal matter for the Labour Party. A bit like if the Republican or the Democratic National Committees decided who would serve out the remainder of the presidential term in the USA, depending on who had the most seats in the House of Representatives.

    The rules for this are entirely the discretion of each party. If Labour Party rules determined that the new leader would be chosen by tossing a coin, or a vote, or a soccer penalty shoot-out of supporters, there would be no legal objection possible.

    The process can take months. The Queen as head of state would formally ratify whoever emerged from the selection process. There would be no obligation to hold parliamentary elections.

    At the moment the Conservatives have several rounds of election until there are two candidates, at which point the national membership of the party vote. I believe the Labour Party still has an electoral college system with a trade union block, local branch members block and members of parliament block. It used to be a 40-30-30 split, but I think that’s now changed.