Like the buses, historic political events seem to come all at once in
the UK. Last week this correspondent noted the degree to which Tony
Blair’s Labour Party had become the natural party of government and
achieved hegemony over the language and framework of British political
life. And that judgement stands – but Blair himself is cactus.

Having announced that he would be standing down sometime in this term,
he was always going to have difficulty in getting the loyalty and
discipline he commanded in his first two terms. But with the
embarrassing loss by one vote – his – of the Religious Hatred and
Vilification Bill in the Commons last week, and new revelations of
duplicity in the lead up to the war in Iraq, Blair seems to have begun
the journey across the Styx. By Friday night, late-night weekly round-up shows such as Andrew Neil’s This Week were talking about him in the tone usually reserved for the great-uncle quietly expiring in the front room.

On the face of it, the loss of his preferred version of the Religious Hate bill looked more
cock-up than catastrophe. It was always known that there would be a
large Labour backbench vote against the bill, and that a dozen MPs
would be campaigning in the Scottish seat of Dumfermiline. Ostensibly
miscounting, and confusion over who was voting for the (Lords) amended
Bill and who was still voting against, caused the government whip to
tell Blair that he was not needed for the second reading. It now
appears there was an element of ambush by Labour MP Bob
Marshall-Andrews, a long-time dissident, who may have conspired with the
Tories to ensure that the amended bill would be rejected.

Interesting, if true, as Orwell used to say, and an indication that
Labour’s discipline has utterly fallen apart just when it was most
needed. Through the first two Blair parliaments, a sense of iron
discipline was enforced and achieved, despite the fact that the government
(ie the New Labour ‘inner’ party) had a substantial majority. Now that
the Labour majority stands at 66 and a three-line whip is desperately
required, it cannot be achieved – simply because Blair has no more jobs
or favours of any likely duration to bestow.

British Labour has only loosely organised factions, but it is in fact
at least two distinct political parties – and they only stick together
because first past the post voting makes minor parties useless. Blair
will never regain discipline – he will hold his government together by
trading away everything he has to, to the Labour left and centre-left
(as he is doing in the now-compromised transformation of the education
system), and he will do this until he goes.

It is not impossible that this latter event is only weeks away. For the
other blow that struck Blair may finally make him a figure to be
genuine disdain among many who had previously given him the benefit of
the doubt. It is the Iraq war of course – a war Blair was so keen to
get into that, according to revelations by international lawyer
Philippe Sands, he was willing to not only ‘sex up’ WMD talk, but
actually acquiesce to George Bush’s plan to fly a U2 spy plane over
Iraq, paint it with UN markings, and hope that the Iraqis would fire on
it – thus giving grounds for war.

Such charges, if true, are beyond any of the previously exposed lies
and evasions that led up to the invasion of Iraq. They’re a frame-up in
the old style of gunboat warmongering – provoking a response in order
to go in and ‘restore order.’ Bad enough. Worse that it came in the
week that the 100th British soldier was killed in Iraq. Worse still
that Blair had been photographed with him. To cap it all, the Guardian
published 31-year-old Corporal Alexander Pritchard’s last letter to his
parents, which began ‘well Mum and Dad if you’ve got this, I’ve gone
somewhere you haven’t’ and continued on ‘u’ve been the best mum in the
world, and dad, don’t u forget to…’ and so on – the heart-rending
letter not of an adult, but of a somewhat naïve man-child, killed
before he lived.

These things add up, and they’ve added up to turn Tony Blair from
saviour to pariah in a few short years. The Iraq war has ensured that
the historical memory of him will be substantially as a man who lied to
his own people to create a war whose net result has been to make the
region and the world more hostile to Britain and Britons, and which has
poisoned the will and self-belief of his own government with cynicism
and expediency. Like LBJ, memory of his domestic achievements
will live (or wither) in the shadow of that dark monument. New Labour
has one or even two more terms in it. But sooner rather than later,
Blair’s departure will be essential to the gaining of them.

Peter Fray

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