It would be tragic if it weren’t so funny. The Downing St memo on Blair’s last days reads like the curtain call for some Eastern European dictator. It is all about personality, about stage-managing the departure of the Dear Leader so that it creates maximum resonance with posterity. And as such it invites nothing but derision.
“Tony needs to go with the crowds wanting more” says the memo, “He should be the star who won’t even play that last encore”. Where have these people been for the last two years? The crowds aren’t calling for more, they’re calling for Tony Blair to go – now. The last thing they want is an encore.
At first, I thought this memo must be a hoax – they couldn’t be that stupid. Then Number Ten admitted that the document was genuine and entitled: “Reconnecting with the public – a new relationship with the media”.
But what kind of reconnection is this? Number Ten staffers have been busy scheduling final appearances for Blair on “Blue Peter” and “Songs of Praise”. Is this a bog roll and sticky tape leader who’ll sing his own praises on the God slot? Where’s Cliff?
The memo talks of the need to ensure that Tony Blair is shot (presumably photographically) in suitable “iconic locations”, like the 20 landmark buildings constructed during his reign. Well, top of the list must surely be the Millennium Dome, since the PM said in 1998 that it would be “the first line of the next Labour Manifesto”.
This empty billion pound tent has stood as a symbol for the vacuity of the Tony years. The only prospect seems to be to turn it, for the benefit of John Prescott’s cowboy chum Philip Anschutz, into Britain’s first super casino. A rather apt metaphor for the insecure, self-centred, grab-the-money-and-run society which Tony Blair has sought to create.
The PM insists he hasn’t actually seen the memo, and that is probably true. But his character is reflected in the courtiers who surround him and who are paid to read his mind. This is what the boss wants – let’s give it to him. “His genuine legacy, ” continues the memo with unintentional irony, “ is not delivery…but the triumph of Blairism.”
What an astonishing statement that is. As if there ever were a “Blairism” – a coherent philosophy of government which marked the age, in the way that “Thatcherism” defined the 1980s. The only “ism” that defines this particular Labour leader is egoism.
It is this extraordinary vanity, this selfish obsession with personal image, that has caused almost the the entire Labour Party to join the chorus of Go Now! Even two key Blairite MPs, Sion Simon and Chris Bryant, have penned a letter inviting the PM to kindly leave the stage. It has been signed by a total of 17 Blairite backbenchers. This is like the Republican Guard calling for Saddam to step down on the eve of the American invasion.
Again, I didn’t believe this latest ‘letter to Tony’ until BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, confirmed that Number Ten had actually seen it. Loyalists then hastily put together a counter letter, signed by another 48 backbenchers, calling for an “orderly transfer of power”. But even this was a little ambiguous since just about everyone agrees that the main obstacle to that orderly succession is the PM himself.
This has been a pivotal week for Labour – the moment when the party finally lost all patience with Tony Blair. It is comparable to the Ides of November 1990 when Thatcher finally provoked her party into regicide. Yesterday, both the Blairite minister ,David Milliband, and the chairman of Labour’s National Executive, Sir Jeremy Beecham, effectively gave Blair his marching orders. Milliband said on “Today” that he couldn’t see Blair lasting more than a year; Beecham told “The World at One” that he expected Blair to make clear at this month’s Labour conference that he would not be attending another.
Trouble is, until Labour MPs hear it from the Prime MInister himself, they simply won’t believe it. We’ve been here too often before. It is going to have to be signed in blood – and signed soon. The alternative could be civil war.
Those inveterate Blairite outriders, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn, have been urging Blair to remain for a full term and have launched a newspaper campaign calling for a kind of permanent revolution of Blairite modernisation.
They suggest that the gains of New Labour are in danger, and that there must be a “fundamental debate” about policy and party direction before Blair goes. Milburn warned in the Sunday Times of “electoral catastrophe” if the Chancellor didn’t join it. “Trappist vows of silence won’t do”, he said.
This thinly disguised attack on the Chancellor, who has been keeping own counsel recently, has infuriated many Labour MPs. The last thing the party needs is to be plunged into a lather ideological soul-searching just at the moment when the Tories are resurgent under David Cameron. Especially since there aren’t any recognisable issues of ideology dividing the party. This isn’t the 1970s. Gordon Brown isn’t Tony Benn. There is no “Alternative Economic Strategy” for a state-socialist Britain.
The Chancellor may use social democratic rhetoric now and again, such as at Scottish Labour Conferences, but he has been one of the most right-wing Chancellors since the Second World War. Brown has thrown open markets, let foreign interests buy British firms en masse, let the housing market explode, allowed income inequality to rocket. The rich have become richer under Brown than they ever were under the Tories.
Labour MPs can see this perfectly well themselves. They realise now that the threat to their seats comes not from the Chancellor, brooding away in his Fife fastness, but from a leader intoxicated by his own sense of destiny.
I have spoken to ministers of both sides of the supposed divide, Blairite and Brownite, in the last week, and the message I get from both sides is that Number Ten is undermining Labour’s case by a indulging in self-destructive negativity. There is simply no need to create this atmosphere of crisis, to suggest that Gordon Brown is a throwback to the past or that modernising reforms are in danger.
Some people are beginning to wonder if Blair has lost it. Has become Labour’s Tommy Sheridan. Like the former Scottish Socialist leader, he thinks the party belongs to him, and if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll take it away. Embattled by the war in Iraq and deluded by the adulation of hand-picked aides, Blair has become a paranoid leader, convinced that people are trying to steal his legacy.
The tragic thing is that if Blair had only been able to see past himself, he would have realised that his legacy was always secure – as the most successful Labour leader in history. It should have been as simple as that. Now he will be remembered for two things above all: the Iraq disaster, and the long good-bye.