Ousting Tony Blair: a user's guide

HE COULD GO
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The Independent Online

This is not the first time for Mr Tony Blair's leadership to be called in question by the old party comrades. On the contrary, his entire second term has been unhappy. When Iraq was but a gleam in Mr Richard Perle's eye, and Mr George Bush thought it was a small town somewhere in Missouri, there were doubts about whether the People's Party should stay with Mr Blair. The result was a rash of stories in the expensive papers about whether, as a Prime Minister, he could be got rid of at all and, if so, how it could be done.

This is not the first time for Mr Tony Blair's leadership to be called in question by the old party comrades. On the contrary, his entire second term has been unhappy. When Iraq was but a gleam in Mr Richard Perle's eye, and Mr George Bush thought it was a small town somewhere in Missouri, there were doubts about whether the People's Party should stay with Mr Blair. The result was a rash of stories in the expensive papers about whether, as a Prime Minister, he could be got rid of at all and, if so, how it could be done.

In the great days of the Labour Party, when it kept losing elections, the universal assumption was that the party was fortunate to be in government and that, in these circumstances, it had better stick to the lucky incumbent of No 10. Not only has the modern party stuck to all its prime ministers. It has been loyal to its leaders as well, with the exception of George Lansbury. When Lord Kilmuir uttered his often quoted remark that loyalty was the Tories' secret weapon, not only was he misdescribing his own party's murderous habits: he was also attributing to the Conservatives a quality that really belonged to the Labour Party.

Thus Ramsay MacDonald himself left the party, with a little help from King George V. C R Attlee was never really in danger as Prime Minister: his position was most under threat when he was Leader of the Opposition in 1951-55. Hugh Gaitskell was challenged several times but died full of honour. Harold Wilson was perpetually being menaced in 1967-70 - he certainly thought he was - but survived because the forces of opposition could not decide between Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan, and because the left of the party thought Wilson (whom they perversely continued to regard as one of their own) was preferable to any of the alternatives on offer.

From one point of view, Mr Blair is in an even more comfortable position. He has only one rival, Mr Gordon Brown. Mr Robin Cook, Mr Jack Straw and even Mr John Prescott may fancy their chances too. But unfortunately, in the debased times in which we live, they are not pretty enough. Nor, probably, is the Old Bolshevik Dr John Reid, who has, however, clearly decided that the best way to pomp and power is to jump up and down waving his arms in the air and pledging eternal devotion to the Prime Minister.

But we must be careful about succumbing too easily to what might be called the television test. Towards the beginning of the young war criminal's first term, party headquarters decided to emphasise the charms of Ms Harriet Harman and Ms Patricia Hewitt; perhaps one or two others as well. Imagine the surprise of the apparatchiks - and possibly of Ms Hewitt and Ms Harman also - to discover from polls, focus groups or whatnot that, so far from being universally admired, they were regarded as being altogether too pleased with themselves, a sentiment that was particularly prevalent among women voters.

It may be that Mr Brown is looked upon in this way too. But if, from one point of view, Mr Blair is lucky to have only one rival, from another it is not so convenient. Mr Brown has but to say the word, and various pieces of machinery will start whirring or, in these electronic times, showing green or red lights, as the case may be, and emitting strange noises.

For - it is still not widely realised - New Labour does possess a mechanism for dislodging a prime minister. The mistake is to assume that the switch is concealed somewhere behind a curtain in the Strangers' Bar, the Kremlin as it used to be called. Not so. True, the parliamentary party retains certain functions. But these are limited to two. First, it possesses a nominating function: a candidate for the succession must be supported by 20 per cent or 12.5 per cent of Labour MPs, depending on whether there is a contested election or a vacancy to be filled. And, second, the MPs have a part in the ensuing election. But it is only a part: in the electoral college, the Labour members have a third share only, as do the trade unions and the constituency parties.

One of the most successful confidence tricks in politics is that the party is a convert to the principle of one member, one vote. Not a bit of it. It is often piously asserted that the trade unions now vote as individuals, not in blocks. The evidence from the elections since the rules were changed in 1993 - involving as they have Mr Blair, Mr Prescott and Mrs Margaret Beckett - is that the unions continue merrily in their unregenerate ways.

The switch for this mighty engine is not concealed at Westminster but in Brighton, Bournemouth or wherever it is that the Labour conference is being held. An election for a successor to a serving prime minister must be demanded by a card vote passed by a simple majority. Our old friend the two-thirds majority is not required: but a card vote is. This means that another old friend, the block vote, comes blinking out from under the stairs. Here again the party has tried to persuade us that the block vote has been consigned to the cupboard. It is thought, rightly, to be bad for business. But the unions still retain 50 per cent of the vote at the party conference.

Mr Brown began his Chancellorship by cultivating the brothers from the branches, while Mr Blair fastidiously avoided their demands for free hospitality and strong spirits. My guess is that Mr Brown pursued his more amiable course (inasmuch as amiability is a quality which he possesses at all) more because he wanted their good opinion of his various economic policies than because he was looking for their support in some future contest with Mr Blair. In the old days the leader of the Labour Party was chosen by the Labour MPs through an exhaustive ballot. The last leader to be chosen in this way was Mr Michael Foot. In 1981-93 the unions had a 40 per cent share of the electoral college. Since 1993 it has been a third. In addition, when a Labour prime minister is being jettisoned or replaced owing to resignation, illness or death, they have a crucial part at the conference.

This, you may say, is all theory. But then, this is precisely what the Conservatives thought in 1990, before the fall of Margaret Thatcher. Most Tories did not understand the rules or got them wrong. Thus her campaign manager, Peter Morrison, performed a calculation for me, ending:

"There, that's the 15 votes she needs."

"But it's not 15 votes, Peter," I said. "It's 15 per cent."

"What's the difference?" Morrison said.

It is not the sort of mistake that Mr Brown is ever likely to make.

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