Changing of the Guard

Report from England

The political landscape is altering here in Britain. The major parties are changing their leaders, and the remarkable dominance the Labour Party has enjoyed since Tony Blair became prime minister nine years ago is coming apart. Last December, the Conservative Party elected its fifth leader since 1997. He is David Cameron, who only arrived in the Commons in 2001. He was largely unknown at the start of the party leadership contest, but won handsomely over more experienced candidates after a clever campaign that went down well. He is an attractive figure who seemed electable to the Conservatives, who are desperate to get back into power after so long in opposition. Such was the state of the Labour Party when it chose Blair in 1994, and there are many similarities between the two men-which Cameron has made the most of.

Cameron is bright, energetic, and personable. Just thirty-nine when he became leader, he has an attractive wife and a young family. He is also a compelling speaker who adopts a relaxed, unbuttoned style, and is happy to be photographed cycling ’round London. He is unapologetic about having attended the poshest school in England, Eton (Blair went to the Scottish equivalent, Fettes) and like Blair-and most British prime ministers-he went on to Oxford. He is clearly following Blair’s political tactics.

To appeal to voters, Blair set himself to shift the Labour Party from the left to the center. He succeeded, even at the price of alienating many of Labour’s traditional supporters. He correctly reasoned that they would still rather have his New Labour than the Tories. Similarly, Cameron is moving toward the center and appears prepared to dump Thatcherite policies and attitudes. This is upsetting to the rightist old guard, but there is not much they can do or say, as they are eager to see another Conservative government, and perhaps achieve office in it. Whether Cameron will win the next election is doubtful, but if he does well enough and then stays the course, he will probably get to 10 Downing Street in time.

The smaller opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, has also elected a new leader. For several years the party was led by Charles Kennedy, a cheerful red-haired Highlander who was popular for his ready wit and his human vices, such as smoking the occasional cigarette and enjoying a glass or two. Though he took his party through two successful elections, there were complaints last year that he was no longer up to the job. It emerged that far from enjoying an occasional glass, he had a serious problem with alcohol, and he was forced to resign. The new leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, is a suave Scottish lawyer in his sixties who was once an Olympic hurdler. He is the archetypal “safe pair of hands,” with long parliamentary experience. He could be a kingmaker if no party has a clear majority in the next election.

Meanwhile, things have not been going well for Blair, and there have been calls for his resignation. Many people who once trusted him no longer do. The Iraq adventure, now over three years old, has done him lasting damage, though more with the political classes than with voters at large, who are not much interested in Iraq, apart from wanting to get the comparatively small British occupying force out as soon as possible. The Iraq entanglement probably cost Labour some seats in the 2005 election, and in a recent by-election, the party lost a seemingly safe seat to the Liberal Democrats.

Following last year’s losses, Blair’s parliamentary position is less secure; he still has what should be a very adequate majority in the Commons, but it is under threat. There are several dozen MPs on the left who resist Blair’s attempt to transform the Labour Party into something akin to the Democratic Party in the United States. They are joined on occasion by a phalanx of former disgruntled ministers, who feel they owe Blair nothing; the hope of office is, after all, one of the components of party loyalty. Blair is still drawing up schemes for what he calls the “modernization” of British society, usually by bringing in elements of private enterprise and what he calls “choice” in public services. He attempted this recently with the national school system. The Conservatives decided to support the bill, as they were ideologically inclined to it anyway, but also as a tactical move; the measure was approved, but only because of Conservative support, since about fifty Labour MPs voted against it. The British parliamentary system is very dependent on tight party discipline, and as a consequence, the prime minister’s position was further weakened.

This was followed by a scandal that reflects Blair’s temperamental tendency to do things his way, without consulting others. It has emerged that he, or one of his helpers, persuaded a number of wealthy individuals to make substantial loans to the Labour Party, in the hope-it can hardly have been a specific promise-of a reward in the form of a peerage. This was done without informing the appropriate officials, and indicated Blair’s habitual disregard for the party he leads. Now he is facing a revolt in the ranks.

During the 2005 election, Blair promised to resign sometime before the next election, but he did not say when. His obvious successor is Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, who was a close friend when Blair and he were both young MPs. Brown has since been both a not very friendly rival and an essential collaborator in the progress of the Labour government. He has been in charge of the economy since 1997, and has run it very successfully; people feel that in their pockets. Unlike most ministers of finance, Brown knows a great deal about economics, and he has had a generous helping of the luck that successful politicians need. He is a man of high intelligence and palpable moral stature, but he is a somewhat buttoned-up, brooding figure, without Blair’s relaxed, media-friendly manner. He is respected in the party, and, since he married late in life and started a family, he has begun to acquire the human attributes that voters like.

Brown is clearly impatient to take over, but Blair will not make it too easy for him. I suspect the prime minister would like to hold on until at least next spring, to complete ten years in office. Blair may even dream of staying on until late 2008, to match Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-and-a-half years. That would be intolerable to Brown, and to the party.

Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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