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Blair: Going, going but not yet gone!

Is Tony Blair likely to choose his own exit strategy or will he be pushed from office?

The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is, when it comes to leadership struggles, historically less ruthless that its Conservative opponents. In British political life, long-lived governments eventually fall apart. The problems become too great, the concentration diminishes, the leaders get tired, the press gets restless and in the end, the electorate deserts the party in power, repelled by the perceived behavior rather than necessarily attracted by the alternative. Blair said he would go. Now the issue seems as if it can no longer be avoided. If any successor is to have time to establish a reputation as Prime Minister before a general election, that successor needs time. By all accounts the coming Party Conference, in Manchester, is being predicted as the last that Blair will address as leader.

What are the problems facing Blair? The war in Iraq and subsequent events in the Middle-East have drained away much support. Blair needs Bush to achieve foreign policy influence but Bush is to the British public at least somewhat un-giving. The relationship would seem on the face of it to have benefited Bush more than it has Blair. Blair cannot really go public about specific aspects of any ‘influence’ he may have. It is hard to see just what domestic constituency, either in his party or in the country, his current foreign policy appeals to. Domestic problems with (still) a small group of radicalized Muslim youth and the consequences for British security, have unsettled the public. The fiasco at the Home Office over criminal migrants released from prison rather than deported has also made the Government look incompetent. The Tories under David Cameron need not make too much of a fuss: the government and internal divisions in the ranks are helping their case nicely along with the electorate.

But this is a new Parliamentary term. Blair is still in charge and still capable of a revival. Any British Prime MInister wields enormous patronage. Gordon Brown (Chancellor and the heir apparent) lacks Blair’s drive for power and probably feels that cooperation rather that out-and-out confrontation is still the best strategy. Whatever happens, there will be an internal party election and Brown has potential rivals. Blair may wish a successor in his own image and this Gordon Brown is not. Unless there is an open revolt, and the recently reported ‘private’ letter from 17 Blairite MPs, does not in my mind constitute open revolt, Blair can chose his moment. This is still the ‘nice’ phase. The ruthless phase is still some time away. Blair, if he is wise (Prime Minsters do not tend to go willingly) will decide his own fate by developing a proper exit strategy rather than promoting a crisis, and Gordon will just have to wait. A question remains as to whether or not Blair's personality and drive makes a planned exit a viable option.