November 10, 2003,
LONDON Sunday morning, the London Times declared that the nation had witnessed an "extraordinary two weeks in British politics." (Americans can be forgiven if a senior Labour official returning from paternity leave and publicly disagreeing with Blair, and a change in the leadership of the parliamentary Conservatives, didn't seem like earth-shattering events worth watching closely.) But the end result of these changes could be a "perfect storm" that may, in a few months, spell the end of Tony Blair's reign .
First, there's Gordon Brown, Tony Blair's finance minister. (Picture a role combining Dick Cheney's jack-of-all-trades vice presidency and a big job in the Treasury Department.) There's a long and tense history between the two Brown looks at Blair's tenure and sees an office he should, and would, have had if not for a few twists of fate. (Brown's friends say Blair broke a deal to have Brown run unopposed for his party's leadership. Blair's supporters say there never was such a deal, and that Brown didn't have the votes to beat the conservative then-Prime Minister John Major anyway.)
Brown and Blair have bickered on and off since Blair took power in 1997. But last week Brown returned from paternity leave to find his rival in his worst shape since taking office. The British public remains much more skeptical of the Iraq war than the American public, and the press continues to slam Blair each time a Baghdad building blows up, an American helicopter is shot down, or anything else occurs that can be interpreted as a setback. The domestic front isn't much better. The universal consensus is that the National Health Service stinks, and Blair's grandiose promises of reform haven't amounted to much. (Worth recalling the next time a Democratic presidential candidate starts oohing and ahhing over single-payer national health care.)
To American conservatives, perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in the Brown-Blair spat is that while Brown is pretty far left on most government-spending issues, he's very skeptical of the United Kingdom's involvement in the European Union.
"Europe's rigidities, inflexibilities and lack of competitiveness, which could once be sheltered in the era of trade blocs, are now fully exposed in the era of global competition," he wrote in an article in the Daily Telegraph. He said Europe must move beyond "short-termist" fiscal policy, adopt a proactive and independent competition regime, follow Britain's example on unemployment, and abandon "grandiose schemes" for harmonizing taxes.
British conservatives say their American counterparts should not be charmed by Brown's criticism of European centrally planned economies.
"But Mr Brown is fooling himself if he thinks voters and this newspaper, for that matter will countenance old Labour economic prescriptions because they warm to his views on Europe," the editors of the Daily Telegraph wrote. "Mr Brown expresses admiration for the American way, even as he relentlessly searches for ways to push British tax rates up towards European levels."
Furthermore, the inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly is expected to release its final report in January, and according to the Times and other reporters on the Parliamentary beat, Blair expects Brown to challenge him then.
Publicly, Brown backed Blair on the Iraq war, but there was widespread reporting in the British press that he was not an enthusiastic supporter of military action. The branches of the Labour party that loathe President Bush believe that Brown would be less supportive of unilateralism, military force, cowboyism, etc. Many parliament members and opinion leaders in the Labour party are at least as liberal as the Democratic party's base, and they're as outraged at Blair as rank-and-file Democrats are with Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt for voting to authorize the Iraq war.
The deep fissures in Labour come as the Conservatives, after nearly a decade of being about as unified as say, the pre-Schwarzenegger California Republican party, suddenly are ebullient about their new leader, Michael Howard.
Most Americans didn't hear much about the previous Conservative leader, Ian Duncan Smith. IDS was generally liked by members of his party, but not considered a terribly effective leader. For all of Blair's mounting troubles, polling continued to show a deep public skepticism about Conservative leadership. Confidence in IDS dropped until the party sensed a real opportunity with Blair in trouble and due for an election by 2006.
Enter Howard. Just as Newt Gingrich's Republicans had then-Gov. Christie Whitman give the response to Clinton's state of the Union from Trenton, New Jersey instead of from Washington, Howard made his first public statement as party leader away from Westminster, in Putney, "on an estate in a constituency where Conservatives must start to win again," as he put it. Howard's first speech as party leader could easily be given by any GOP House member:
Labour's preferences are still for state control and central diktat. Faced with a problem they are still programmed to tax and regulate their way out of it. Parents know their own children best, better than any bureaucrat. So parents should have more say and more choice over their children's education. And greater choice in health care. And people work hard for the money they earn. They want to keep more of it, to save more, to support better their families and communities. People want a sense of security. They want to know they can get the health care they need. To feel secure in retirement. To be safe in their homes, and on their streets. And they want fairness. No one should be over-powerful. Not trade unions. Not corporations. Not the government. Not the European Union.... it is an exquisite irony that the prime minister who railed against 'the forces of conservatism' now finds himself at the head of the forces of reaction.To American ears, Howard's address echoes George W. Bush's 2000 convention address, where he accused Democrats of opposing school choice and Social Security investment accounts. Throughout his speech, Howard referred to "21st century Conservatives" perhaps the British version of "compassionate conservatism."
A unified Conservative party, a divided Labour party, and a report likely to condemn Blair's misuse of intelligence in the months before the Iraq war all spell serious trouble for Blair. When Bush visits England next week, maybe Blair will ask him for Karl Rove's phone number.
Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, is traveling in London.