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

"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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media & Advertising Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national business publishi...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea