Matthew Norman: While Blair burns, Brown plays his fiddle
His refusal to do the decent thing is creating the most curious atmosphere Britain has known
Friday 12 January 2007
"He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won't even play that last encore." You may recall this sublime rhyming couplet from the memo about his cunningly staged departure compiled by remaining loyalists in Tony Blair's bunker and leaked to a newspaper last September.
If the thought seemed richly comic at the time, it has since come to assume an aura of such overwhelming pathos that it's hard to contemplate without the need to brush away a manly tear.
Much has happened in the intervening four and a bit months - the alleged attempted coup against him, marked deteriorations of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, further evidence of fiscal chaos in the NHS and gross incompetence at the Home Office, his interview with the Met over peerages, the disgracefully conducted execution of Saddam Hussein, another grubby saga of freeloading holidays with showbiz mates, this week's dreadful education figures, and so on - and none of it good.
Apart from that one episode at the Labour conference, when a brilliantly delivered speech induced a moment of mass hypnotic adulation, it has been a blemish-free catalogue of failure, disaster and rank humiliation. And yet, like John Major's childhood home in Brixton, he's still here.
Whether how he is still here is a more interesting question than why he is still here, I can't quite decide. The first is a matter of pure politics, specifically the pathological cravenness that has blighted Gordon Brown for so long, threatening to condemn him to a premiership barely longer than the man who may well prove the Brownite template, Sir Anthony Eden, who seethed for a decade before succeeding Churchill and then quickly destroyed himself.
It has been in Gordon's power for years to dispose of this deluded apology for a British Prime Minister. Had he shown the same degree of principle over Iraq as his old enemy Robin Cook, and resigned before the invasion in March 2003, Mr Blair could not have survived the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Since then, Gordon has had him on the ropes, legs wobbling and brains scrambled, several times. Each time he has stood back, seemingly unable to believe how close to the title he was, and gifted Mr Blair time to recover his wits.
Frank Bruno, another big punching but mechanical bruiser undone by lack of killer instinct, did the same when he buckled Iron Mike Tyson with a scything right cross early in their first meeting in Las Vegas, held on the 10th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's time in Downing Street. Which brings us, by way of a clunking local radio link, to that second question of why he is still here.
Is it the desire to celebrate his decade in Downing Street in May that keeps him going on and on and on? Is it the need to pay the mortgage on that town house in Bayswater, or bullying from Cherie to frustrate the wicked Gordon for as long as possible? Is it the old, old story of a leader so cosseted from reality by sycophantic courtiers, who carefully hide the newspapers and ensure he's otherwise engaged when irritants such as next week's Channel 4 drama The Trial of Tony Blair are screened, that he has no conception of the derision in which he is held? Or is it the even older story of the leader so warped by overexposure to power that he literally cannot imagine how the world could survive without him?
With the one exception of the mortgage, which a month's tour on the US lecture circuit would pay off in full (the real reason, presumably, why he was so slow to criticise Saddam's hanging, and so mealy mouthed when he did; bleeding heart nonsense like that costs ticket sales in middle America), it might be one, all or any permutation of the above. Without extraordinarily rendering of the man to Vienna and giving a vast squadron of top psychotherapists time to diagnose him, how can anyone know for sure?
What is in no doubt is that his intransigent refusal to do the decent thing is creating the most curious political atmosphere this country has known in living memory, and perhaps ever. One of the very few appealing things about the British system of government was always the extreme haste with which fallen leaders were shunted out.
When Edward Heath lost the 1974 election, he hadn't arranged anywhere nowhere to live, and had to camp with a friend in Vauxhall. When Mrs Thatcher was finally ejected, her des res on an ugly, red-brick Dulwich estate for retired Rotarians hadn't been furnished, so she borrowed a house in Chelsea. A colleague recalls seeing Harold Macmillan, a week after his tenure in Downing Street ended, waiting forlornly in a Westminster bus queue.
There was something vastly reassuring about the undignified speed with which prime ministers were reminded of the transience of power and its trappings. Mr Blair, who lost power many months ago, has defied all the laws of politics once again by clinging to office, but for him the indignity is a thousand times worse. If only he knew it.
Looking increasingly vacant in that ravaged, glassy-eyed way, the widow's peak stretching the hair-thickening sprays more by the day, his recent statements of intent - sorting out the Middle East, revolutionising university funding, saving the planet from climate change while continuing to star in Carry On Turning Left At The Stewardess - have been so barmily self-contradictory or plain delusional as to suggest the sort of character for whom the first question, on being hurriedly admitted to a clinic, is "Now then, dear, do you know who the Prime Minister is?"
In a vaguely sane political system, with a vaguely coherent written constitution and a vaguely effective legislature, the answer "Tony Blair" would trigger the appearance of a syringe and the whispered request "Straitjacket, sister, quick as you can". But thanks to this weird, unsettling stasis gripping Westminster, it still qualifies as that rarest of commodities to emit from Mr Blair's mouth, the literal truth.
And there is nothing, so it seems, anyone can do but wait it out. Whether it does the country any quantifiable damage is hard to say (our international reputation could hardly be more degraded than it is), but the damage to Labour, with important local elections looming and David Cameron industriously cementing his poll lead all the time, is abundantly clear.
And still the Chancellor stands by, making his little calculations and watching the last of his possible rivals, "Dr" John Reid, implode; settling for the role of Regent to our very own George III, still unable to locate the balls to end it with a good, clean strike. At least Tony Blair has the excuse of being raving mad. For his barely less central role in this demeaning farce, Gordon Brown has none.
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