Given the results in Tony Blair's Road to the Manifesto plebiscite and his iron grip on the party machine, it seems both bizarre and unbelievable to suggest that he could become the shortest serving prime minister of this century. But behind the facade of unity and discipline the reality is that Tony Blair's position as leader of the Labour Party is weaker than of any leader in memory.
The last time a Labour leader faced anything like a serious challenge was when Harold Wilson stood against Hugh Gaitskell in 1961. Even with such a formidable opponent, Gaitskell was able to survive. But the success of previous Labour leaders has rested on loyal support from the right- wing majority inside the Parliamentary Labour Party and a close working relationship with the main leaders of the trade unions.
This is Blair's weakness. He is unaware of just how widespread is the dissatisfaction and outright anger at the style of his leadership and policies among those MPs who put him in the leadership. Starting with the anger over choice of a school for his son and running up to the expensive irrelevance of the Road to the Manifesto, I have never known Labour MPs to be so bitterly and personally critical of their leader.
Blair has also squandered the traditional loyalty of the trade union leaders. It may get good headlines in the Tory press to have your spin doctors rubbish Bill Morris and John Edmonds but this overlooks the fact Blair will have to rely on these men to stave off conference defeats once Labour is in government.
To make matters worse, there is also the blunt reality that Tony Blair is in a minority within his own Shadow Cabinet on key issues concerning the welfare state and trade union rights. In the past, leaders could rely upon a solid block of supporters in the Cabinet, but the scale of mutual loathing between Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett is so blatant that it has become public knowledge.
It is against this background that a Labour government will take office next spring and face several immediate crises. Within the first few months, Blair will have to resolve the conflict between Brown and Cook on whether or not Britain should be in the first wave of EU states joining monetary union. Gordon Brown intends to introduce a mini- Budget to replace what we inherit from Kenneth Clarke thus opening all the major fissures on taxation and public spending.
The attempt to push through Scottish and Welsh devolution is unlikely to be made any easier, whatever the outcome of the referendum plans, as English voters will have no say and those dinosaurs on the back benches who are opposed to devolution will not feel inhibited about re-running the wrecking game that wasted so much of our time in the Seventies. While it has, so far, been only the hard left and the Trotskyite grouplets who have been ranting on about these issues, once pre-election unity is no longer required, all these changes have the potential to reawaken the sort of civil war that disfigured the party during the Bennite challenge.
No one but a fool would choose to fight on so many fronts yet all these issues will come to a head by the end of next year and could combine to leave the leader isolated and weakened beyond recovery.
With Robin Cook having built the strongest parliamentary reputation since John Smith, there will be no shortage during next year's summer of discontent of MPs prepared to accept that the damage caused by an internal palace coup will be less of a problem in the long run than the greater risk of being led by a leader whose policies and personal beliefs are shared by only a small minority of the PLP.
When power starts to slip away, Blair will find that rule books and constitutions cannot ward off the real political forces that come into play. Labour could soon find for the first time that it too has the "men in grey suits" it thought were unique feature of the Tory party.Reuse content