Britain woke up this morning to a blizzard of headlines claiming that Tony Blair will step down in the middle of next year, making way for Gordon Brown, the chancellor, to take over as prime minister. The media has been so obsessed for so long by the date of Blair’s departure and the Brown-Blair duel, that it is has been tempting to tune out much of the coverage. My own attitude has been “wake me up when something actually happens.”
Well, something seems to have happened now. Labour MPs are signing letters demanding that Blair “set a date”; and the Sun newspaper (which despite specialising in photos of semi-naked women has a good record of political scoops) claims that the date is now set at May 31st next year. The atmosphere of impending crisis is being fed by the fact that the Labour Party conference is due later this month.
The whole thing is strongly reminiscent of the frenzy that preceded the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Blair – like Thatcher at the end of her time in office – is now much more popular in the United States then at home. For Blair in particular, however, closeness with the US and Britain’s participation in an unpopular war in Iraq has been enormously damaging domestically. It may be irrational but many Brits feel obscurely humiliated by what they regard as a subservient relationship between the prime minister and President George W. Bush. The “yo Blair” incident at the last G8 summit – in which Bush lounged in his chair, while Blair whispered courtier-like in his ear – was particularly damaging.
Any successor to Blair is going to be under enormous pressure to distance himself from the Bush administration. This would be as true of the Tories as of Gordon Brown. In an interesting piece in The Daily Telegraph this week, Rachel Sylvester quotes aides to David Cameron, the newsish Tory leader, as saying that Cameron would be looking for lots of “Love, Actually” moments – a reference to an execrable but popular recent film, in which a British prime minister (played by Hugh Grant) tells an American president where to get off, to much applause from cinema audiences.
Given the national predilection against “cutting and running”, this is unlikely to mean that the next British prime minister “does a Zapatero” – and, like Spain, swiftly withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there will be pressure to make a few high-profile gestures, whether on climate change or Iraq itself.
These political pressures raise the intriguing – and not altogether comforting prospect – that a Brown administration that came into office in the middle of next year (with probably two years before the next election) would enjoy worse relations with both the European Union and the United States. Brown, unlike Blair, is no Europhile. In Brussels, he is regarded a monolingual curmudgeon, whose biggest interest in the EU is the opportunities it affords for press-pleasing “showdowns” with recalcitrant Europeans. This may be a little unfair. There seems little doubt that Brown is intellectually convinced of the case for close British involvement with the EU. But he clearly does not enjoy the EU game. And this, combined with his apparent determination to re-open the vexed issue of the EU budget, could mean that the advent of a Brown government presaged a worsening of British relations with the rest of Europe.
By contrast, Brown would normally be expected to get on very well with the Americans. He holidays there regularly and loves nothing better than a seminar with the latest fashionable academic from Harvard or MIT. But he is more of a tribal leftist than Blair – and may find it hard to get on with a Republican president. And the political climate in Britain has certainly made the “special relationship” much less fashionable.