Tories can't believe their luck as Labour destroys itself
Wednesday, 06 August 2008

If Brown has any dignity, any self-respect, he ought to come out clunking and fire Miliband

Bruce Anderson

The Government is dithering to death. A week ago, Labour ministers and MPs had a choice: back their leader or sack him. Being New Labour, they found a third way: bleed him. This is political insanity. Most voters share two wise prejudices. First, they distrust divided parties. If you cannot agree among yourselves, why should we listen to any of you? Second, as Tony Blair would put it, they diss leaders who cannot impose their authority. If your colleagues do not respect you, why should we?

A week ago, Labour was in a mess, virtually condemned to electoral defeat. Now, the risk is that the party will be hooted out of office: discredited, embittered and divided. However impressive the winning margin, British elections are won one at a time; 1997 was a rare exception. Yet if Labour carries on like this, David Cameron could be heading for a two-term victory.

It is all Tony Blair's fault, though nothing to do with the leaked memorandum. After 10 years of sabotage and insolence, Mr Blair could be forgiven for his suspicions. But they were unfounded. Poor old Gordon can be accused of just about anything, except trashing the Blairite legacy. Perhaps he should have done, for it was an accursed inheritance.

Mr Blair stands accused on three counts. First, he did not create a successor generation. Although here are some bright youngsters, they are mere choirboys, their political voices still unbroken. Second, he created a party which only he could lead. Tony Blair does have one asset in common with Margaret Thatcher. Though neither of them is an intellectual, they could both command support from intellectuals. The Thatcherite ones have no reason to apologise. Not only was she a world-historical figure, well worth their adulation. Thatcherism, though a much more problematic concept then her devotees would have us believe, can be identified and will endure in political discourse. But Blairism? It is the politics of the Cheshire Cat, and there is only one politician who can do the grin (poor old Gordon's is more of a rictus, like Heathcliff howling for Cathy's ghost). Beyond the grin, there is only one useful definition of Blairism: make it up as you go along.

There would appear to be no excuse for intellectuals who are taken in by grinning and tap-dancing. Yet there is no limit to the credulousness of intellectuals, especially left-wing ones. The Blairites were the lineal descendents of the apologists for Stalin: the Webbs would have been among Tony's courtiers. As Robert Harris writes in The Ghost, early Blairism was not a political movement: it was a cult. Intellectuals are not immune to the lure of cults.

This is Tony Blair's third and greatest political crime. Acquiescing in cult status, he ensured that since 1994, the British left has done no serious thinking about what it believes: about how to be a left-wing party in a post-socialist world. True, it did perform some serious election-winning, which seemed more than adequate compensation. But that is now over. The Labour Party is left with the same arguments that divided socialists from social democrats for 70 years – and with the grin that failed.

From grin to Gord, also failing, apparently incapable of bestiring himself to survive. That has been the most extraordinary development in an astonishing week: watching the great clunking fist turn into a wimp. How else to explain David Miliband's remaining in office? Talk about dissing: no Cabinet minister has publicly cheeked a PM in the way that he did and kept his job. Again, Gordon can be deemed guilty of almost anything – but spinelessness? We learn that Gordon does have it in mind to punish David Miliband, by making him swap jobs with Alistair Darling. The Chancellorship, a punishment?

If Mr Miliband were made Chancellor, he could back off with honour. Otherwise, he is committed to insurrection. He nearly ran for the leadership in 2007, but decided not to do so for the best of all possible reasons: he did not think that he could win. Now that he has mobilised his troops for a second time, he cannot stand them down without major concessions from the PM. Otherwise, he would be the ouright winner of the Gordon Brown Memorial Bottling Prize for 2008.

Mr Miliband is now deciding how much political courage he possesses. Gordon Brown should follow that example. The Prime Minister must answer one question. Is he a man or a mouse? If he is a mouse, fine, let him snivel and grovel on in office. Who knows? Given the difficulty Labour has in displacing a leader, he might even manage to last longer in Number 10 than Anthony Eden did.

But if Gordon Brown has any dignity, any self-respect, he ought to come out clunking. Fire Mr Miliband and anyone else who follows his example. Let it be known that if there were a move to challenge his leadership, he would go straight to the Palace and ask for a dissolution. This might not work, but Mr Brown would at least have the pleasure of dying on his feet. He could easily add late Samson to his Heathcliff repertoire.

The Tories are enjoying their good fortune. In the political calendar, January to July is hard pounding: seven relentless months of campaigning and conflict. By the holiday season, everyone who is anyone in British politics needs one. But David Cameron was determined to ration his colleagues' time off, and his own. He did not want to run the risk of losing momentum.

Now, some Tories are wondering whether this was an act of supererogation. What is the point of trying to undermine the Labour Party, when it is intent on self-destruction? Watching Labour, Tories are tempted to echo the Irishman who asked if this was a private fight, or could anyone join in.

There seems no reason why the entire Tory party should not have adjourned to a vine-trellised terrace somewhere on the Mediterranean littorral, to relax while chuckling over the emails describing Labour's latest misfortunes. That will not happen. Mr Cameron is a hard taskmaster. He is determined to anticipate political trouble, even if it never happens; to get his retaliation in first, even if all his opponents have cut each others' throats.

The public are still asking questions about Tory policies and about the depth of Mr Cameron's own political seriousness. David Cameron and his colleagues intend to spend much of September answering those questions, although not explicitly, after spending part of August on the intellectual preparation.

Labour has lost. The Tories have intellectual and political momentum. After 15 years of adversity, they are revelling in it. Every time they find it hard to believe their luck, some senior Labour politician rushes to the airwaves to make them feel luckier still.

Gordon Brown must now decide what message he wants to take to the airwaves. In comparison with a restoration of his authority, the raising of Lazarus might seem like a children's party conjuring trick. But if Gordon Brown wants to escape from the depths of derision, he has got to fight as he has never fought before.

----The Independent

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