- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

“You’re never really finished,” goes the old political joke, “until you receive a vote of confidence.” Well, this last weekend Tony Blair, Britain’s Labor Prime Minister and America’s favorite foreigner, received a string of confidence votes from ministers in his government.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said that the prime minister should be allowed “to get on with the job.” Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt added he should “go in his own time.” And the government’s Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith, threw in the thought that it would be “undemocratic” to drive Mr. Blair from office.

Such expressions of confidence were needed because so many other voices were urging Mr. Blair to depart from office as quickly as possible.

These hostile commentators included the usual suspects — leaders of other parties — who see the chance to inflict a defeat on the government.

But new recruits are joining the choir: The London Times, which generally has been a supporter of the prime minister, this week called for his resignation in the national interest. Added to this public chorus is a series of quiet rebellions from Labor members of Parliament who think the entire Labor Party will suffer if Mr. Blair continues much longer in office.

What makes these rebellions so significant is that Mr. Blair has promised to leave office sometime around the middle of this year. Usually, even political opponents would be content to wait a mere 20 weeks for the departure of someone who has dominated the political scene for a decade.

In addition, there is one very solid reason why Labor MPs should want Mr. Blair to stay on until mid-May. Local government elections are scheduled for early May. Everybody expects a disaster for the Labor Party. Why not wait until then, pile the responsibility for these losses onto Mr. Blair’s shoulders, drive the scapegoat into the wilderness, and allow his successor to enter office with a clean slate?

Mr. Blair’s likely — almost certain — successor is Finance Minister Gordon Brown, who seems to be acting on this logic when he studiously avoids joining the anti-Blair rebellion but waits for the crown to fall unbloodied into his hands by midsummer.

All these Machiavellian calculations are beginning to look irrelevant, however, as the scandal undermining Mr. Blair continues to grow. This is the so-called “loans-for-peerages” scandal. It rests upon the known facts that Labor had received secret loans before the 2005 general election from persons subsequently nominated for peerages, i.e., membership of the upper house of Parliament (the House of Lords, or the antiquated British version of the U.S. Senate.)

It is illegal — a “corrupt practice” in legalese — to sell such honors. In practice, honors have been exchanged for donations to political parties for decades if not centuries. But they have generally been disguised and arguably sanitized by requiring the donor either to give generously to nonpolitical charities or to perform other forms of public service as well as contribute to political party coffers.

What made these loans different was their odd combination of blatancy and secrecy. They were blatant because the donors were asked to do nothing but aid the Labor Party financially. They were “secret” because they were loans, probably destined never to be repaid, whereas outright gifts would have had to be publicly declared. And once this became known, the trail of this blatant secrecy led straight to Number 10 Downing Street.

Mr. Blair has now been questioned twice not as a “suspect” but as a witness by the police. But several of his aides have been questioned by the police as suspects. And a leak from the British prosecuting authorities suggested yesterday that charges might be brought against Labor’s chief fund-raiser Lord Levy, Mr. Blair’s director of government relations Ruth Turner, and one of the donors, Christopher Evans, who founded Merlin BioSciences. Moreover, Michael Levy and Miss Turner might be charged not only with corrupt practices but also with the more serious charge of perverting the course of justice (i.e., a cover-up.)

If these charges are actually brought, Mr. Blair’s position might well become untenable. He would be asked to resign in both the nation’s and Labor’s interest by all but the most loyal ministers such as Mesdames Jowell, Hewitt and Smith above. The justification would be that a prime minister could not remain in office if his closest aides faced prosecution for major political corruption.

But his position is only slightly better if the charges are never brought or delayed well into the year. The rumor mill would then spread an exaggerated version of these charges that might even tie them more closely to the prime minister and other ministers. And the continued erosion of public support for Labor would ever worsen.

Some leading Labor figures — including the party chairman, Hazel Blears — are already warning that Labor will become unelectable at some point if the bleeding is not stopped.

That must impel Gordon Brown to consider his own position. The longer he waits to become prime minister, the more meager, tawdry and hopeless his inheritance. He must also know what everyone else knows: that he could effect a change of prime ministership by the end of the week by simply going next door and telling Mr. Blair he will resign immediately if the prime minister refuses to do so.

Should Mr. Brown fail to do so as the government sinks further into unelectability, others will draw a natural conclusion about him: namely, that he is no leader. They will look, even at this late date, for alternatives. Several potential prime ministers sit around the Cabinet table: Education Secretary Alan Johnson, an amiable and shrewd former postman; Home Secretary John Reid, a Glaswegian street-fighter with a Ph.D.; and Environment Secretary David Miliband, a young Blair lookalike in his ideological flexibility. And the longer Mr. Brown hesitates, the more tempting for one of them to wield the dagger against Mr. Blair that the chancellor shrinks from.

As the dying king breathes out his last center-stage, the attention of the audience will shift inevitably to the scene in the wings where four or more steely-eyed men watch each other coldly in case one of them makes a sudden move.

As for the dying king, he still nourishes fantasies that he will recover and create the lasting legacy that he somehow failed to construct in his 10 years of undisputed power. But there is life after politics.

And contrary to what you may have heard, prime minister, there are second acts in American lives.

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

Hudson Institute.

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