Dark days for the end of Blair

HOW Labour laughed and mocked the hapless Tories during the dying embers of John Major's government, racked as it was over European policy. Remember Tony Blair's taunt to Major: “I lead my party, he follows his.

By Graham Dines

HOW Labour laughed and mocked the hapless Tories during the dying embers of John Major's government, racked as it was over European policy. Remember Tony Blair's taunt to Major: “I lead my party, he follows his.”

Mr Blair has found out what it's like to lose control of his own party. He's the victim of events he can no longer control.

For those of us of a cynical nature, this past week has been the best fun in politics since Margaret Thatcher's downfall.


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There's a monumental irony in seeing the man who scoffed at his predecessor's misfortune at the hands of his MPs now being now being humbled by his own party.

All premierships end in tears, quite literally in the case of Margaret Thatcher. For some it is the electorate which delivers the verdict - Clem Atlee, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, and John Major. Others bow out through ill health - Sir Anthony Eden, and Harold Wilson.

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But there is now a modern phenomenon in British politics which see leaders reluctant to go of their own accord being forced out by their parties.

Sir Winston Churchill believed in his own longevity and although there was no coup in public against the great man, the pressure was piled on behind the scenes by the men in grey suits of the Conservative Party.

Mrs Thatcher's days were numbered a year after her second crushing landslide victory. For rank-and-file Tories she could do no wrong. But MPs, conscious of a growing unease among the voters over the poll tax and desperate to hold on to their seats at the following election, moved to topple her.

It left the Tory Party stunned, international leaders puzzled, but she was sacrificed for the good of the Conservatives' electoral chances.

John Major survived a challenge in 1995, but his premiership was mortally wounded. If he had fallen that year, the outcome of the 1997 election may not have been the Labour landslide it was to become.

Now Tony Blair is on the receiving end of an ungrateful parliamentary party's fear of defeat. It wasn't good enough for him to say - foolishly, as I pointed out last week - that he would retire before the end of this parliament.

MPs want a leadership contest sooner rather than later, for a successor to be chosen, and for ample time for Labour to renew itself and offer a new set of polices to head off the charge of David Cameron.

I well remember Tony Blair's first Labour Party conference speech after becoming Prime Minister. He warned that the Tories were not dead, merely asleep and they would awaken and again be serious challenge for power.

It is that reawakening since David Cameron became Conservative leader, combined with poor local election results for Labour last May and the PM's unstinting support for the pro-Israeli line of President Bush in the summer conflict in the Lebanon, which led MPs to sign a letter to Mr Blair asking him to consider stepping now rather than next year which seemed to be Mr Blair's favoured option.

The letter has been a catalyst for the downfall of Mr Blair. Labour Manchester conference will be his last as leader - in the words of the East of England Euro MP Richard Howitt, it will be a celebration of a stunningly successful premiership - and if the pressure mounts, he could use the occasion to say he's going before next May, which would be the 10th anniversary of entering Downing Street in 1997.

Mr Blair is no doubt reflecting on the ingratitude of his MPs. Having led them to a third election victory in a row - unprecedented for the Labour Party - they have turned on him and forced his hand.

While he was visiting the Middle East yesterday, his loyal deputy John Prescott appealed for a return to “normal business” in the party.

It's too late for that. There is too much poison in the atmosphere, with senior figures issuing a character assassination against his “natural” successor Gordon Brown in an attempt to take the cup of power away from the Chancellor's lips.

And it's too late for the optimism of Richard Howitt. “This topic is fascinating for some people obsessed with politics, but the reality is most people just feel the Government should get on and do the job it was elected to do with a big majority, just 15 months ago, and can't really get their heads around the furore that is happening at the moment.”

It's gone way beyond being a Westminster village issue. When the future of Tony Blair and the suitability of Gordon Brown are the subject of talk in all sections of society, it is clearly not just aninternal Labour Party matter.

Mr Howitt made a thinly veiled attack on Ipswich MP Chris Mole, one of the signatories of the “go now” letter to Mr Blair which started the current furore. “Most of us work endlessly for the return of Labour representatives in elections at all levels, and look to our leaders in Westminster to exercise the same discipline in the interests of our party and of the country that they rightly expect of us.”

How much longer Tony Blair can survive - or want to survive - may become clearer in Manchester this month.

For now, he is the victim of his own 10 year-old taunt. He is following his party, not leading it.

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