Blair's Crisis: Holed Beneath the Water

Issue section: 
(302)

Blair's government is in terminal decline. The war in Iraq is the prime cause, argues Alex Callinicos.

The decline and fall of Tony Blair's premiership doesn't quite have the majesty of a classical tragedy. But it is following an ineluctable logic. That the government should lose a crucial vote in the House of Commons was entirely predictable, given the nature of the situation. A government with a small parliamentary majority and an unpopular prime minister will always be highly vulnerable to backbench rebellions.

What was more surprising was that the defeat came over the Terrorism Bill. Blair and his ministers had used the 7 July bombings to create a climate of insecurity that they hoped would increase their popularity and make it easier to make further inroads into civil liberties. The police chiefs' demand for the power to detain suspects for 90 days - a measure recalling the security regime imposed in apartheid South Africa in the early 1960s by police minister John Vorster - had support in the opinion polls (though this seems to have been softer than the government claimed, to judge by polling since the Commons vote).

A sign of weakness

The fact that, despite all this, 62 Labour backbenchers felt confident enough to vote against or abstain on the 90-day detention clause is a sign of how weak Blair has become. There is also something symbolic in the fact that the government's defeat was over an issue whose origins lie - despite ministers' desperate denials that the July bombings had anything to do with the war in Iraq - in what's really destroying Blair.

This is, of course, the war, the war, the war. Blair's insistence on dragging Britain into George W Bush's imperialist adventure in the Middle East, and the exposure of the lies, negligence and faulty intelligence used to justify this policy are the fundamental causes of the crisis into which his government has descended. When Blair was defeated in the Commons, it was as if a bloody, bony hand thrust itself from an Iraqi grave to seize him round the throat.

Another such bloody claw now has Bush round the throat as well. As Alexander Cockburn shows elsewhere in this issue, the dramatic decline in support for the Bush administration reflects the fact that the penny is beginning to drop. Both ruling class and working class Americans are waking up to the fact that the Iraq war is a catastrophe.

The growing debate in Washington over withdrawal from Iraq and the administration's assault on civil liberties, the constant seepage of revelations about the circumstances in which the war was launched, the scandal that has led to the indictment of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, that may yet reach ever deeper into the black heart of the White House - all these have the potential to cause more collateral damage to Bush's chief ally on the other side of the Atlantic.

This doesn't mean that Iraq will always be in the foreground of political conflict in Britain during the next few months. On the contrary, the focus has already shifted to Blair's domestic agenda - in the first instance, the Education Bill. But it is important never to forget the sometimes visible, sometimes subterranean fracture that has fatally weakened the entire structure of the government - and that is Iraq.

This analysis poses the question: if Iraq is so crucial why is it striking home only now? After all, Blair survived the rebellion of 139 Labour MPs who voted against going to war on 18 March 2003 - the biggest parliamentary revolt since 241 Tory MPs voted against Sir Robert Peel's bill repealing the Corn Laws in May 1846. There are two reasons why he is more vulnerable now.

The first is that in March 2003 the bulk of the cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party wanted him to remain prime minister. The haemorrhage of votes and seats in the general election last May, when Blair limped back to office after having campaigned almost as Gordon Brown's running mate, means that many Labour backbenchers and cabinet ministers now regard him as a liability.

The second is a consequence of that election. Thanks to Labour's reduced majority of 66, it takes only 34 backbenchers to vote against the government to defeat it. This arithmetical possibility became reality in the House of Commons on 9 November. It is very unlikely to be the last parliamentary defeat Blair suffers. One of the most remarkable things about the vote on the 90-day detention clause was that the rebels included Nick Raynsford - till recently a loyal Blairite minister. There are likely to be plenty more like him to challenge the government over other issues.

At the heart of the issues on the domestic front is what one might call privatisation Blair and Brown style. Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major privatisation meant selling off public assets (the family silver, as ex-Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan called them) to private firms at knock-down prices. New Labour prefers to give state money to private businesses to run public services. Since these firms are after profits (the terms of the deals usually guarantee a generous return), the inevitable consequence is worse public services, and deteriorating wages and conditions for the workers producing them.

This hollowing out of the welfare state is already quite advanced in the National Health Service, but Blair wants to push it much further. This has already provoked a backdoor revolt by Labour MPs that has at least postponed plans to transfer most primary healthcare workers to the private sector. But a big fight is set to develop after Xmas over the new Education Bill, which is designed to dismantle the comprehensive school system that was one of the proudest achievements of the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s.

Blair's last stand

It's hard to predict precisely how this confrontation will pan out. It depends partly on how one interprets Blair's behaviour over the 90-day detention clause. Did his refusal to compromise reflect vanity and stupidity, or just vanity? If it was the first, then Blair's decision to sabotage home secretary Charles Clarke's efforts to negotiate a compromise with the backbench rebels was a consequence of his self-belief - he had won his opponents round on other issues, and he could do it again.

If that was what Blair thought, then this was, of course, a disastrous miscalculation. But it would leave him room to learn from his mistake and proceed more cautiously in future. There is a little evidence of this - Blair and education secretary Ruth Kelly have been making some effort to win over backbenchers opposed to their schools 'reform'. Some compromises have been floated. A Guardian leak suggests that one of the most scandalous proposals, letting 'public' schools take over comprehensives, may be restricted to London.

This interpretation is consistent with an interesting appraisal of Blair as a political leader by David Runciman, who argues that 'Tony Blair is a highly risk-averse politician who nevertheless likes to play for very high stakes' (London Review of Books, 20 May 2004). In other words, when Blair is confident of victory he goes all out to ensure he wins. If this is right, then his confidence was simply misplaced in the Terrorism Bill vote. The alternative view is that Blair knew he would be defeated and pressed ahead with it anyway. Andrew Rawnsley put forward this argument in the Observer (13 November 2005):

'This is the first prime minister I can think of who has deliberately walked into a defeat. If this does prove to be the beginning of the end, the final unravelling of his premiership, it will be regarded as one of the worst misjudgements of his career. But what it was not was a miscalculation. He correctly calculated that he would lose. He then decided that this was still preferable to compromising. This was a gamble, but the gamble was not on the vote itself. The gamble was that defeat was a better outcome than retreat.'

The gamble would be partly about damaging the Tories. David Cameron is trying to position himself as Blair's true heir, backing the Education Bill and effectively criticising Michael Howard for opposing the government over issues like university top-up fees and foundation schools. One way of blocking this strategy is to try and expose the Tories as being out of step with public opinion over the Terrorism Bill.

But Rawnsley suggests that there is a deeper motivation as well. Blair doesn't want to 'spend his remaining time as prime minister in permanent negotiation with his backbenches'. Rather than 'fade away', he'll 'blaze away', even if this means more parliamentary defeats.

This seems quite plausible. Blair loves to see himself as a messianic figure. His speech at the last Labour Party conference included those telling references to him and his like as 'change-makers', and his expression of regret about compromising in the past. More recently he has been boasting about how 'restless for change' he is.

It may seem too superficial to call this vanity. It's not that Blair has no ideology. He genuinely believes in the moral right of liberal imperialist powers to invade and change other countries. And he sincerely thinks that private enterprise is best, in defiance of all the evidence to the contrary.

But I don't really see the push for the 'reform' of the public services as a big ideological struggle. There's not much of a Blairite cadre. Many of those closest to Blair have left government, usually for lucrative private sector posts. His two most loyal cabinet ministers, Tessa Jowell and John Reid, are now at daggers drawn.

The fact that Blair foolishly reappointed David Blunkett to the cabinet and tried to hang on to him once he had been holed beneath the water again is a sign of how isolated the prime minister is. There's no Blairite equivalent to the Thatcherite Young Turks like Michael Portillo who, with other junior ministers, forced his way into Thatcher's office in November 1990 in an attempt to persuade her not to resign.

No, what we're seeing is the last stand of a vain and hollow politician who has just woken up to the fact that he will soon be gone, and that he will be remembered overwhelmingly for his part in the first great war crime of the 21st century - the destruction of Iraq. So he wants to go down fighting for a domestic 'revolution' that would do to British public services what he and Bush have done to Iraq.

If this interpretation is correct, then there will be more backbench rebellions until the cabinet muster the courage to remove Blair. If the Tories under a Cameron leadership stop voting with the Labour rebels that may give the government victories in the Commons, but at the price of increasing bitterness within the Labour Party. The most likely timing of Blair's removal would be after the council elections in May, when many Labour rotten boroughs may pay the price of still having Blair as their leader.

What role is Gordon Brown, the all but anointed heir apparent, likely to play in all this? Where Blair is a high-stakes player, Brown is, well, the polite term is risk-averse - the more accurate one a coward. He owes Blair no favours after the way he has been tormented by Blair over the succession (most recently allowing his office to leak that David Miliband would be a better successor to confront Cameron). But Brown doesn't want to win the prize indebted to the left wing MPs at the core of the rebellion against Blair or to inherit a deeply divided party, as Major did after Thatcher's fall.

So he's backing Blair to the hilt. At a key moment in the general election he intervened to support Blair on the war. He flew back from Israel in a last-minute effort to save the 90-day detention clause. And he and his supporters (for example, the Guardian's Jackie Ashley) have invoked Labour's election manifesto against the backbench rebels opposing public sector 'reform'.

This position is, no doubt, in part dictated by the tactical considerations mentioned above. But principle is also at play here. Brown and Blair have had their disagreements about how to 'reform' public services, but Brown, along with John Prescott, is the architect of the eccentric New Labour policy of paying private companies to provide public services that are worse and more expensive than they were when produced by the public sector.

Anyone who believes that there is a qualitative difference of ideological and political principle between Brown and Blair is kidding themselves. Even the trade union leaders have been showing signs of nervousness about handing Brown a blank cheque, though the fact that some of them canvassed Alan Johnson, currently busy trying to dismantle public sector pensions, as an alternative candidate for the Labour leadership suggests a complete loss of contact with reality.

Where does this situation leave the real left? We have been here before, in the long death agony of the Tory government, from Nigel Lawson's resignation in October 1989 to the final coup de grace nearly eight years later. We all remember who benefited from that crisis - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who got us into this present mess. To a large extent both the revolutionary and the reformist left were observers of the Tories' decline, especially after the mass closures of the pits in 1992-93 did not lead to a real fightback.

But it doesn't have to be the same this time. The back of Major's government was broken by something apparently quite remote from people's lives - a currency crisis, with the pound being pushed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in September 1992. This time, as I have tried to show, it is the Iraq war that is fundamentally responsible for the disintegration of Blair's premiership. And it is the radical left that has been the most consistent opponent of this war, initiating the greatest mass movement in British history.

Moreover, the radical left is a very different animal from what it was in the early 1990s. Then it was scattered between the Labour Party, the revolutionary Marxist organisations, and the traumatised fragments of the Communist Party. Now, thanks to the process of realignment that began during the Kosovo war of 1999 but achieved a qualitatively higher level thanks to the experience of the Stop the War Coalition, much of the radical left has regrouped in a common party with a national profile - Respect.

The terminal crisis of the Blair government offers Respect a great chance to consolidate its claim to be the credible left wing alternative to New Labour. But this means an enormous effort in the lead-up to the council elections next May. We have to turn Respect into a national mass membership organisation that campaigns, not just against the war in Iraq, but on all the social and political issues around which the government is attacking working class communities. We have a lot of work to do.