So today’s the day. Sometime between 2pm and 3pm Tony Blair will announce to the world the day he intends to stand down as prime minister. Or so we all thought. Breaking news suggests that, in fact, he won’t specify a day at all, but will confirm that he will stand down sometime before next year’s party conference.
Brownites are desperately pushing for clarification, and would love for Blair to just stand down today, avoiding what could otherwise be the longest leadership contest in history. According to reports, Gordon Brown has demanded that he goes by Christmas. If Blair were to say, for example, that he’ll go on May 31st, we’d be looking at eight months of machinations and political manoeuvres in a party that is clearly not united on anything. With no real leader in the interim (who’s going to care about the consequences when they already know that he’s leaving?) this could make the Conservative Party squabbles under John Major in the mid 1990s look like a children’s tea party. Gordon Brown will most likely be the victor in any contest, but may first face a battle from John Reid, Alan Milburn, perhaps even Jack Straw or Charles Clarke. None of whom would be particularly attractive to me – but at least we know something about them. Gordon Brown is an unknown quantity. Who knows what he thinks about any of the major issues facing Britain today? What does he think about British involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan? About our role in Europe? Our relationship with the United States? About Muslim fundamentalism?
In any case, any euphoria about Blair leaving is going to be relatively short lived. The left of the party still aren’t going to see Labour return to anything like its socialist roots. And Brown’s backers will soon have to face up to a certain reality: their new leader will have to battle David Cameron, who is younger, more charismatic and more voter friendly than Brown, the Silent Chancellor. It’s almost laughably ironic: after giving way to Tony Blair in 1994, then spending twelve years as a frustrated leader-in-waiting, Gordon Brown could well find himself as prime minister for just a couple of years, before being unseated in a general election to a Conservative Party led by a replica of the man who held him back for so long.
The Guardian today quotes Labour MP John McDonnell as describing the events of the last few weeks as being like an episode of The Sopranos. I think that does our favourite Mafia family a disservice. There is at least a concept of honour amongst thieves in their world: what’s going on in the Labour Party right now makes the mob look quite civilised. Perhaps Gordon should have had Blair clipped – that usually speeds up leadership contests in La Cosa Nostra.