It’s hard to quarrel with Annabel Crabb’s assessment, in The Sunday Age, that it’s been “an extraordinary 24 hours in British politics.” Things haven’t calmed down much since then, either.

First
came Thursday’s local elections in London boroughs and various other
parts of England. They were bad for Labour: not quite as bad as had
been feared, but plenty bad enough. What must worry the government’s
analysts most is not just that the Labour vote was down, but that most
of it seemed to go straight to the Conservatives: the Liberal Democrats
made hardly any gains.

Even as the results were still coming
through, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his ministerial reshuffle.
It was a bloodbath, with movement in almost all of the top jobs except
for Blair himself and his chancellor of the exchequer (ie treasurer),
Gordon Brown. Several of Labour’s most senior figures are clearly
unhappy with their new positions, and the beleaguered former home
secretary, Charles Clarke, retired to the backbench rather than accept
demotion. As The Observer put it in an editorial on Sunday, “Mr
Blair went for ‘shock and awe’, levelling the cabinet and rebuilding it
in a single morning. … This is not a cabinet designed to deliver a
Brown transition but one delivering a Blair legacy.”

Faced with
this indication of Blair’s intention to stay on for some time yet, his
opponents within the party – both Brown loyalists and unrepentant
left-wingers – have been out for his blood. Some 50 of them have
apparently signed a letter
calling for “a clear timetable and procedure for the selection of a new
Labour Party Leader”, with the clear though unspoken threat of using
the party’s rules to bring on a leadership challenge, which requires 70
MPs.

On Sunday, Brown tried, after a fashion, to calm things down. According to the BBC,
he warned against “extremists” and “said Mr Blair’s departure date was
a matter for him … and he did not need ‘outriders dictating the
agenda’.” But he also made it clear that he was still expecting a
“stable and orderly transition of power” in the reasonably near future.

Blair
is now in the uncomfortable position that Margaret Thatcher experienced
before him: he leads a party that has never been fully in sympathy with
his ideas, but which tolerated him as long as he kept winning. If he is
seen to be an electoral liability, he will have no residual loyalty to
rely on. No doubt he would like to stay around until late 2008 to beat
Thatcher’s record in office, but his prospects are not looking good. As
Rachel Sylvester said recently in London’s Daily Telegraph,
“It is possible for a leader to get elected despite his party, but it
is much more difficult for him to govern in defiance of the very people
to whom he owes his position.”

Peter Fray

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