- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

Prime Minister Tony Blair faced disaster as the voting booths closed for Britain’s local elections closed on Thursday night. All the usual indicators — opinion polls, canvassing returns — pointed to a loss of between 300 and 400 Labor seats. A defeat on that scale might force Mr. Blair to announce an early date for his retirement in favor of Chancellor Gordon Brown. It would certainly prompt a rebellion of Labor M.P.s against him.

Six hours later the situation was subtly worse. Labor had lost almost exactly 300 seats — a serious defeat but short of an utter rout. Mr. Blair might be able to survive for a further two years or even longer. As a character crushed (by different circumstances) in a Michael Frayn novel shouts: “It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”

Mr. Blair is still better placed to withstand the “hope” than either Mr. Brown or most Labor M.P.s. He has declared his intention of resigning before the next national election (which must be held no later than May 2010.) Labor’s performance this week raises only a short-term question for him; how long can he hang on between now and then?

Mr. Blair is an optimist. He will calculate after Thursday night that he can hang on for another two years. At least.

But Mr. Brown and every other Labor M.P. has to wonder if this week’s losses leave enough room for an electoral recovery by their preferred date of May 2009 for the next general election. They now regard Mr. Blair as an electoral liability. But would forcing him out damage their chances more than continuing to stagger on under his leadership? A loss of 400 seats would have settled the question in favor of ousting him. A loss of only 200 seats — the opposite. But as it is … it’s the hope they can’t stand.

So what’s next? Ministers on these occasions always argue as follows: all governments are unpopular in mid-term; this is merely an average debacle; and it follows a particularly bad run of news. That last argument at least is true enough.

One week before the elections, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, a leading Blair loyalist, had released onto the streets 1,023 foreign criminals, including murderers and rapists, instead of deporting them after their sentences had been served. At least five of these criminals had later committed serious crimes — one a murder. To complete the picture of what the British call “a complete bloody shambles,” no one knew where they were.

Then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a bluff symbol of Old Labor rectitude, was discovered to have had a flaming affair with a civil servant in his office, Tracey Temple. Sunday’s tabloid papers contained her account of their trysts. One had taken place in a government apartment immediately after a ceremony honoring Britain’s Iraq war dead; another in a hotel suite while an oblivious Mrs. Prescott waited for her husband in the downstairs restaurant. (To be fair, Prescott is a busy man… . )

The final episode was less a scandal than a brutal sign of the government’s decline in popularity even with its natural supporters. Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was booed by nurses when she claimed that the National Health Service was enjoying its best year ever. Since health workers were being fired across Britain at the time, it was a gaffe too far. But Ms. Hewitt suffered mainly from being the luckless symbol of a government that had poured billions into public services without actually improving them.

Would she now be fired as a result? Someone’s head must roll to show the voters that their displeasure has been taken seriously, to punish failure, and to give the government a fresh look. But how many heads? And whose? If Mr. Blair was to keep a clear head on his own shoulders, a loss of 300 seats would suggest a fairly large reshuffle of lesser heads.

Sure enough, when the re-shuffle was announced only a few hours after the election results, it proved to be a wholesale re-making of the government. Unsuccessful ministers were fired; Blairites were promoted; Brownites stayed put. Mr. Prescott lost almost all of his many responsibilities but kept his title of deputy prime minister, his two official homes, and his chauffeured car. Hmmn … he is likely to be a grateful and impotent supporter of Mr. Blair hereafter. Unsuccessful Blair loyalist Charles Clarke was fired — to be replaced by tough combative Blair loyalist, John Reid. And rising Blairite transport minister, Alan Johnson, whom well-informed people have recently begun discussing as a possible successor to Mr. Blair if a bus runs over Mr. Brown, was promoted to the key post of education. And Ms. Hewitt? She survives — just.

This reshuffle was the act of a prime minister who plainly intends to stay in power as long as he possibly can. He has transformed the Cabinet into a praetorian guard of Blair loyalists. His motto might almost be a remark of former Labor prime minister, Harold Wilson, when faced with a similarly rebellious party: “I know what’s going on. I am going on.”

But Mr. Brown and his supporters — only one of whom, Douglas Alexander, received a significant promotion — must surely place an even more sinister interpretation upon the reshuffle: namely, that the prime minister is determined not only to stay but also to be succeeded eventually by someone other than his brooding chancellor. The promotion of Messrs. Reid and Johnson is an unmistakable attempt to create rivals for the succession against Mr. Brown.

Once the Brownites realize that, they must also realize that they have to oust Mr. Blair as soon as possible even at the temporary cost of party disunity.

Such a calculation should be further encouraged by the second main result of the election: the revival of the Tories under their new young leader, David Cameron, who won 39 per cent of the popular vote, compared to the 27 per cent gained by the centrist Liberal Democrats under their new elderly leader “Ming” Campbell.

This Tory success should not be exaggerated. It is only 1 percent more than they won two years ago. It scarcely penetrated the inhospitable north of England. It occurs after six months of unbelievably favorable media coverage. And despite the existentialist despair that has gripped Tories in recent years, their party was bound to recover once the spell of New Labor was broken as it has been.

Even so, the fact that the Tories rather than the Lib-Dems immediately benefited from the breaking of that spell is crucial. As Labor M.P.s know well, the Lib-Dems are ultimately a nuisance. Only the Tories can actually defeat Labor and form a government. Until this week Labor enjoyed the advantage that there was no alternative to them. There is now. It weakens Labor. And Labor’s new nervousness weakens Mr. Blair even if Mr. Blair himself is determined not to acknowledge the fact.

Oh what it is to be tortured by hope.

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.

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