March 24, 2006,
In what remains the most dramatic parliamentary attack on a sitting British Prime Minister from his own party, Nigel Birch, a former Tory Minister with an acerbic tongue, rose in a crucial 1963 debate on the so-called Profumo affair to address Harold Macmillan directly from the government benches behind him.
Macmillan had fired Birch six years before. The whole House of Commons knew of their antagonism. It was not easy therefore for Birch to carry others with him in an assault that must inevitably seem born of personal bitterness.
But Birch succeeded by a coldly brilliant speech that climaxed with a quotation from Browning a quotation that crystallized all the doubt and disillusionment that Tory MPs by then felt about their leader:
Life's night begins: let him never come back to us! There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,Forced praise on our part- the glimmer of twilight,Never glad confident morning again!
Only a few months later Macmillan, whose nickname had been “Supermac” in the long years of his political dominance, had lost office. A year after that the Tories lost an election and went into the political wilderness for six years. The dagger wielded by Birch wounded more than its intended victim.
That was a long time ago, of course. The Profumo scandal, international in its day, was largely forgotten until two weeks ago when the death of John Profumo revived memories of it. Profumo’s affair with a good time girl who also happened to be sleeping with the Soviet military attaché was the proximate cause of Macmillan’s troubles. The obituaries recorded that he had spent the forty years after his resignation quietly working for the poor in a settlement in London’s impoverished East End. He sought no further public role. He was remembered by those he helped as a “saint.”
His extraordinary atonement had a contemporary political impact because it coincided with the latest scandal afflicting Tony Blair’s New Labor government. The lawyer-husband of a loyal Blairite minister, Tessa Jowell, had admitted in a letter to receiving a “gift” of over half a million dollars from Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s center-right prime minister and media magnate, in return for protecting him in an Italian lawsuit. Jowell herself had signed a mortgage application on the family home that looked to be a way of bringing the money into the country unnoticed. And to quieten the ensuing row, she announced that she and her husband were separating at least temporarily.
The joke in London was that she was the first minister to give up her family to spend more time with her job. The more sober remark, heard everywhere, was that in contrast to John Profumo: “They don’t do that any more. They don’t resign. Or if they do, they’re back in some new government job six months later. They don’t make amends.”
“They,” of course, refers to the entire political class since the last few years of John Major’s Tory government were almost comically awash in “sleaze.” But because the Blair government has been in power for nine years, the great bulk of public odium now attaches to New Labor ministers. And anger at these multiplying scandals is felt even more deeply on the Labor benches in Parliament than almost anywhere else.
“Jowellgate” with its tales of offshore hedge funds, multimillion-dollar tax avoidance, three-month mortgages on the family home, right-wing media magnates like Berlusconi, and a payment that must be a “gift” because (in the words of the minister’s husband) “what else could it be?” all this might have been designed to shame and anger the representatives of “the people’s party.” Even if no actual crime was committed, Labor MPs feel that their leaders should not be consorting with the international rich and helping them to play their financial games.
Scandals like this reinforce their long-held suspicion that Blair and New Labor are an alien breed who have grabbed control of a party to which they don’t really belong, which they don’t even like, and which they use for anti-Labor purposes. Blair feeds this suspicion with his plans to reform health and education along lines freedom for schools and hospitals from bureaucratic state control that the Tory party pioneered under Margaret Thatcher (and that, ironically, Blair undid with a flourish in his first term.)
Last week he secured the passage of just such an education-reform bill in the Commons by overriding a substantial Labor rebellion with the votes of almost the entire Tory party. The Tories acted shrewdly here. They know that only Labor MPs can bring down a Prime Minister with a clear parliamentary majority. By supporting Blair, they encourage Labor rebels to continue and expand their rebellion.
Tony Blair was therefore already in a weak political position last Thursday when a new scandal broke that implicated him personally. Downing Street had recommended peerages in return for multi-million dollar loans given by wealthy supporters to help Blair win the last election. Other senior ministers, notably Blair’s likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, were kept in the dark. Not even the Labor party’s own treasurer knew about the loans for which he was legally responsible.
And why loans rather than gifts in this case? It soon emerged: Gifts have to be publicly declared; loans can be kept confidential and perhaps written off later when the peerage is safely granted.
So Blair, as well as apparently selling peerages (which is still technically a crime, though one hard to prove), was evading the very rules on “transparency” that he had virtuously introduced as the antidote to John Major’s “sleaze” only a few years ago. The prime minister dealt brilliantly with this embarrassment at his regular press conference by announcing a reform of the financing of political parties as Matthew Parris of the London Times put it, like a burglar persuading the court to overlook his offenses by calling for a fundamental reform of the Theft Acts.
Yet his spell is fading. Over the weekend the newspapers were full of calls for Blair’s resignation. Even The Economist magazine, conscious of its role as the voice of the Davos world establishment, solemnly opined that he should depart. And moderate Labor MPs, even Blair’s senior ministerial colleagues, now fear that the longer he stays, the weaker the government will get. All but a handful of New Labor loyalists want him out.
Blair himself, however, shows no sign of willingness to depart. He likes being Prime Minister. He remains a superb political performer as his press conference showed. Above all, he wants to leave a political legacy of which he can be proud and today that legacy is a threadbare mix of three election victories, the Iraq war, and unfulfilled promises of better public services. He combines the qualities of his two predecessors: Thatcher’s abilities, Major’s achievements. And he will cling to office, still hoping to improve that historical verdict even on the day he leaves.
Others are likely to determine that day. Some ex-minister or frustrated backbencher is even now looking over Nigel Birch’s speech for inspiration. He cannot, of course, quote the closing lines of Browning’s “The Lost Leader.” That would be too obvious. Considering Blair’s fondness for the international super-rich, however, he might choose the opening lines:
Just for a handful of silver he left us. Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us, Lost all the others she lets us devote; They, with the gold to give, dol’d him out silver, So much was theirs who so little allow’d; How all our copper had gone for his service! Rags were they purple, his heart had been proud!
But what else will fall wounded when he strikes at Blair?
John O'Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.