His authority has gone the way of his friends

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is always difficult to stop the political camera - even that most useful of devices, the retrospective camera - and say firmly: There. That was the moment at which the Prime Minister lost authority and became a lame duck.

With Harold Macmillan it happened at some time in 1962 (when, which may surprise you, his likely successor was thought to be Reginald Maudling) rather than in the following year, when he finally went. Harold Wilson never recovered from the "pound in your pocket" broadcast after the 1967 devaluation - though I thought at the time, as I still perversely continue to think, that Wilson was entirely justified in pointing out that accounts in building societies or whatever were not being devalued too. Margaret Thatcher lost her authority between 1989 and 1990 but certainly well before the time of her demise: it may have been with the resignation of Nigel Lawson, or with her declaration that she intended to go on and on and on.

Watching Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday, I had the same feeling about Mr Tony Blair. He was not, I thought, long for this world. Of course I mean the political world or, at least, the world that still gathers round Westminster and Whitehall. No doubt there are all sorts of international organisations where Mr Blair would be welcome to make a nuisance of himself. It does not always follow, however, that the loss of political authority which I have in mind is invariably accompanied by the speedy loss of No 10.

Macmillan could have continued in office after his operation in October 1963. He resigned not, as is commonly supposed, because of a faulty prognosis but because he used his illness as an excuse to go. The son of the surgeon who performed the operation has testified convincingly that he was given a correct prediction of the course of events and, indeed, he went on to live to the great age of 92.

Wilson carried on for nine years as leader after his devaluation broadcast, five of them as Prime Minister. There was nothing "mysterious" about his resignation. It had been long planned. And the typically precise schedule set up by Wilson for his departure was upset - though only slightly upset - by political events which he could not possibly have foreseen.

There was, again, nothing inevitable about the fall of Lady Thatcher. If she had fought on into the second ballot, telling her ministers to take a running jump, she would, I think, have defeated Michael Heseltine. She would probably have beaten him narrowly. It would scarcely have been a glorious victory. She would have been a lame duck of a Prime Minister. But she had been a lame duck before. So likewise had Macmillan and Wilson before their ends finally came. They could all three of them have continued for even longer than they did. But their authority was gone; had, indeed, gone long before the events surrounding their departure. There are at least two reasons why I think Mr Blair has now reached this condition.

One was his use of the word "totality" as a kind of multi-purpose excuse for any apparent difference in what he told journalists on the aeroplane from Washington and what Sir Kevin Tebbit of the Ministry of Defence told Lord Hutton's inquiry about the Prime Minister's role in the naming of Dr David Kelly. We are now, it is easy to predict, in for an endless dictionary-discussion of the differences involved in naming, confirming, leaking and revealing.

The other, stronger reason why I think Mr Blair has lost his authority lies in the silence on the benches behind him. The backbenchers were not prepared to come to his support when he needed it. These demonstrations, admittedly, are not always wholly spontaneous. This has been so for ages, since well before the era of television and spin-doctors. On this occasion the Whips did not organise a show: whether because they forgot or did not feel like it or, perhaps, because their charges would not have been specially responsive to their call.

Clearly, this mood can change. The row over top-up fees may act as an incentive to loyalty over Lord Hutton. We should never underestimate the extent to which everything that happens in London SW1 is governed by party. If Richard Nixon had been Prime Minister when the Watergate scandal occurred, he could easily have gone down to the House and asked for a vote of confidence. And he would have got it. There is no arguing with the brute force of a majority. I remember, for example (even if no one else does), the way in which the Commons rejected Lord Radcliffe's 1967 report on the D-Notice affair and substituted the Wilson government's self-serving White Paper, purporting to controvert it, in its place.

It is quite possible that, despite Wednesday's silence of the work-horses, Mr Michael Howard's embarrassing of Mr Blair will produce this effect over the next couple of weeks. It was for this reason that the forces opposed to Neville Chamberlain in 1940 attacked him by means of a motion for the adjournment rather than a motion of censure. Similar examples could be multiplied. It may be that Mr Howard has made the mistake not only of attacking Mr Blair too personally - making it clear that he is out to remove him - but of attacking him too soon. I do not know whether the Conservative leader numbers boxing among his sporting interests, but there is a saying: You don't want to leave it all in the gym, meaning that the fighter should not use up the whole of his spirit and energy before the contest. By this test, Wednesday's stirring events must be counted as a session in the gym rather than the fight itself.

There has been much speculation about Lord Hutton and what he will conclude in his report. He struck me as the sort of judge who would say: "Please sit down, make yourself entirely comfortable and have a refreshing glass of Ulster sparkling spring water before I sentence you to death." At the same time, he seemed to have a profound respect for the mysteries of government - though whether this has survived his summer experiences in the Royal Courts of Justice remains to be seen.

Lord Hutton may not attack Mr Blair personally but nothing he concludes can restore Mr Blair's authority. Nor is it only his authority that the Prime Minister has lost. He has lost his friends as well: Ms Anji Hunter, Mr Alastair Campbell, Mr Peter Mandelson, Lord Irvine (who intends to devote the autumn of his days to sitting as a Lord of Appeal, or whatever the new-fangled top judges are to be called). Though authority is important to a Prime Minister, friends are more important still, as Margaret Thatcher was to discover.