Review of the year: Politics

Blair found the third way to say goodbye
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Indy Politics

Usually, in British politics, a year ends as it begins, with one simple, overwhelming question. Will Tony Blair be able to survive for much longer as Prime Minister? The question has been applied persistently since midway through Blair's second term. What makes the last 12 months so extraordinary is that the question is irrelevant now. The dreary speculation has ceased; 2006 can take a bow. For once, a year does not end as it began.

At the end of the most dramatic few days since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Blair was forced to answer the question about his political longevity himself. In September, with the sun still shining and many MPs on holiday, he announced that the looming Labour conference would be his last as leader. Finally, we knew more or less when he was going. He had discovered a third way in prime-ministerial resignations: the semi-farewell.

As such, September's events were an emblematic Blairite moment, full of noise and fury, and multi-layered in their enigmatic complexity. He was forced to almost take his final bow. At Labour's conference in Manchester, Blair said an emotional farewell. During his spectacularly successful speech, some in the audience were in tears. By the end of the week, he was back at his desk in Downing Street. He is Prime Minister still. But not for much longer.

The coup was an act of strangely shapeless regicide, an insurrection carried out by dissenters who were so nimble-footed, no one was quite sure who they were. A few former Blairite MPs lit the touchpaper, writing to Blair that he should go. That would not have been enough in itself to depose him. There were two other factors. Downing Street sought to get an avalanche of Labour MPs to sign a letter of support for the Prime Minister. It did not get very far. More importantly, Gordon Brown remained publicly silent during those torrid days, refusing to endorse Blair at his most vulnerable. Privately, he was demanding that Blair announce a timescale for his departure - and this time, he got his way.

The mystery of the insurrection had an equally ambiguous corollary: who were the beneficiaries?

Since those wild days, two myths have surfaced. The first is that the dissenters did unnecessary damage, as Blair was planning to stand down anyway. There was no evidence for this. Instead, he appeared to be keeping all options open in his public evasiveness. The second, more persistent, myth, is that Brown was damaged by the sheer bloody nastiness of it all. If Brown had not acted then, he would be trapped still in the corrosively precarious position of king-in-waiting. And it was far from clear when the king was going. Brown had no choice but to act. He became a more liberated figure in the final months of the year, and a lot of the whispering against him by the more extreme Blairites stopped. When it came to it, none of them dared to declare their candidacy in the embryonic leadership contest, a campaign that was as shapeless as the coup that brought it about. There was a vacancy at the top, but not yet.

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What happened in 2006 that made Blair more vulnerable? An underestimated factor was the manner in which the Schools Bill was passed earlier in the year. Blair managed to get his controversial proposals on to the statute book only with the support of the new Conservative leadership. Even the ultra-loyal Neil Kinnock was stirred into revolt by a programme that threatened to establish a two-tier system for secondary schools. Cleverly, David Cameron declared that Blair could relax. This was a good Conservative measure. His party would support it. Unlike his inept predecessors, Cameron showed that the best way to undermine Blair was to support him.

Another spark was Blair's reluctance to call immediately for a ceasefire after Israel's attacks on Lebanon in the summer. At the height of the tensions, President Bush was recorded, in a supposedly private exchange at an international gathering, greeting the Prime Minister with the now infamous words: "Yo, Blair...". Probably, the words did not signify a patronising dismissal of the ever-supportive ally, but that was how they were perceived at the height of the storm over Lebanon, with echoes of Blair's support for Bush in the build-up to the war in Iraq. Blair was more vulnerable than he realised when he returned, refreshed and revitalised, from his summer break in Barbados. Soon, he knew that he was not safe.

But here is the twist. A political calm replaced those seething days in September. Blair had space to pursue his chosen agenda now that Labour MPs and activists knew that he was going. He pursued it relentlessly, with new measures on security and crime, and an expansion of his city-academy programme. With an ambition at odds with his own declining powers, he pursued new initiatives in the Middle East, while insisting, still, that British troops would remain in Iraq "until the job was done". Unfairly, much of his activity was seen in the light of his impending departure: "He is doing this for his legacy," was a common observation. This was a misinterpretation. He was doing it with a wilful tenacity because he believed in most of it. Indeed, the great irony of the September coup is that he had much more scope to act while the Labour Party awaited his departure. Blair was a beneficiary of the September coup, too.

In this curious political limbo, David Cameron strode with an energetic self-confidence, although it was never very clear where his hyperactivity was leading. With some success, Cameron addressed the perception of the Conservatives as being nasty and stuck in a timewarp. He cycled to the Commons and planned to put a wind turbine on his house. His focus on the environment propelled the issue up the political agenda, forcing Labour to take it more seriously.

Yet it emerged that Cameron's car also accompanied him to Westminster as he cycled, a revelation as symbolically damaging as the "Yo, Blair" greeting was for the Prime Minister, in that it raised wider questions. How serious was Cameron when he spoke of issues not traditionally associated with the Conservative Party? How dependent was he on gimmicks and soundbites?

A close analysis of Cameron's speeches suggested that he was updating the Conservatives' image while retaining support for traditional policies such as a smaller state, tax cuts and a reversal of the Government's attempts to redistribute in favour of the poor. Blair used to claim, misleadingly, that he was placing traditional Labour values in a modern setting. In fact, since 1997, Blair has, to some extent, changed Labour's traditional values and the policies associated with them. Strangely, the slogan "traditional values in a modern setting" is one of the few phrases that Cameron did not lift from the New Labour lexicon, but it applied more closely to him in 2006. Skilfully, Cameron put a familiar Tory case in a new light, highlighting poverty, green issues and the causes of crime.

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Most polls showed the Conservatives to be consistently ahead for the first time in more than a decade. This was a significant achievement for a new and inexperienced leader. But his ageing party showed few signs that it was ready even to accept the modern setting applied to most of its familiar ideas. The Conservatives almost lost a safe seat in a by-election in the summer. In his main speech at the Conservative conference, Cameron made a positive reference to civil partnerships for gays. Some in the hall looked far from pleased. The Tory party could not escape its recent bleak past in a single year. Some yearned still for more bleakness.

Mr Cameron faces a bigger test in the coming year when he will unveil more of his policies. Will he reassure his right- wingers? If he does, will he alienate some of those he has sought to woo over the past 12 months? He has the second-most difficult job in British politics.

There was another coup in 2006. Unlike Labour's insurrection, this one brought about a near-immediate change. At the start of the year, Charles Kennedy held a highly charged press conference in which he admitted to having a drink problem. The theatrical event epitomised the shape of British politics in 2006, part-Oprah Winfrey, part-soap opera, amid the noisy clamour of unresolved ambition. Within 48 hours, Kennedy had resigned as leader, with parliamentary support falling away more quickly than leaves in an autumn gale. The desperate Kennedy had been determined to cling on, placing the supposedly laid-back leader in a new light: although he often seemed relaxed to the point of indifference, Kennedy retained a hunger for leadership when it was obvious he was doomed. In his final hours as leader, he displayed an obstinacy that was rarely on display when he was supposedly in command.

But he had always been a popular leader with the wider electorate. His successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, had always been a popular potential leader. When he finally got the top job, he stumbled into a phase of derisory unpopularity. What makes a good leader? There are no clear rules, but some find the transition more difficult than others. Sir Ming was an authoritative foreign-affairs spokesman, punching well above his weight. As a leader, he punched at times well below his newly elevated position, seeming nervous and hesitant. But in policy terms, he made strides. His party was well ahead of the others in developing a programme to meet the newly fashionable concerns about the environment. It performed fairly well in the various elections of 2006. Its poll rating was solid, to the bewilderment of other party leaders. Even after a year that was the political equivalent of a wild night on the town, the Lib Dems could not be written off.

Single-issue pressure groups flourished in 2006, as all the main parties struggled to make headway. The anti-politics culture deepened, as much of the media bashed around elected politicians and knelt at the altar of unelected figures, from business leaders to rock stars. The BBC was as culpable as some newspapers in conveying a misleading impression that politicians were up to no good. Membership of parties declined and a dangerous cynicism about politics intensified. In the vacuum, groups such as Greenpeace made waves - in the latter's case, particularly on Tory-party policies.

The Stern Review report on the economics of climate change, published in the autumn, galvanised all the parties. Senior figures queued up to express their concern, but the detailed policy implications remained unclear. The Government promised a climate-change Bill, but the contents were vague. At the end of the year, Brown was cautious on shifting the focus towards green taxes, announcing only small increases in duties on air fares and petrol. The Conservatives promised tax cuts to accompany new green taxes, but were imprecise about who would be hit. The Lib Dems proposed substantial green taxes and argued that the money could be spent on cuts in income tax, a carrot so big that some wondered where the money would come from if so many people stopped flying and driving. This was a year in which green issues soared up the agenda, but political leaders responded cautiously in practical policy terms.

Now the political world awaits the arrival of Brown as Prime Minister. Speculation about the departure of Blair is over, but the shape of British politics remains hazy. All that can be predicted with certainty is that, like its predecessor, 2007 will end very differently from the way it begins.

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