Michael Brown: The uncannny parallels between Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher in her final weeks

There comes a time in the political life of every Prime Minister when they simply run out of road
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The Independent Online

It was early August. An international crisis in the Middle East engulfed the world. The UN was wrestling with a delicate series of draft security council resolutions. The Prime Minister was in the United States urging President Bush "not to go wobbly". Back home the government had been losing by-elections.

The reform of local government finance - the introduction of the poll tax - was in full swing. Inflation was rising and interest rates were increasing. Backbenchers were in open revolt and public opinion had long since turned against the Prime Minister. The Cabinet was growing increasingly fractious and the former long-serving Foreign Secretary had recently been consigned to the backwater post of Leader of the House.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? The year was 1990 and Margaret Thatcher was considering, with President George Bush Snr, the British and American response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. But she was just 16 weeks away from being removed from office by her backbench MPs and the Cabinet. And as interest rates increased yesterday (with more rises certain to come) and at his monthly press conference Mr Blair announced a reform, later this autumn, of the structure and financing of local government, I could not help being reminded of those political events in 1990.

Mrs Thatcher had travelled to a grand international junket in Aspen, Colorado and met President Bush. She was feted wherever she went. Some at home even believed that this crisis would, like the Falklands some years earlier, once again enable her to play up to her strengths as a world stateswoman and would allow her to restore her tarnished domestic reputation.

History never repeats itself exactly but, while on his Caribbean beach, Mr Blair might reflect on the backdrop of events within the Tory party then and recognise that he faces the same strong possibility that his premiership could also be over by Christmas. Of course, one major difference is that Thatcher was still intending to lead the Tory party into her fourth general election. She was at the "on and on and on" stage of her leadership.

But in many respects the knowledge that Mr Blair will not be defending his record at a future general election must now actually make his position even more precarious than that of Thatcher. After all, many Labour MPs must be asking why, if he is not going to be around to carry the can for any of his policies at the next election, should he remain in power a moment longer?

Mr Blair can at least be relieved that most of his cabinet colleagues and backbenchers are also away sunning themselves on beaches. But the prospect must loom of a parliamentary recall in September, enabling dissident backbenchers to plot before the party conference season gets under way. So the pent-up anger already being expressed by the few Labour MPs still around suggests that Mr Blair's long hot summer may yet develop into the equivalent of Thatcher's autumn and winter of discontent.

For most Labour MPs, the issue of Middle East politics, and in particular the desire to see the creation of a Palestinian state, goes to the heart of their personal international credo. The announcement of the road map, in 2002 was the only good thing to come out of the Bush/Blair relationship that has positively aroused the passions of the average Labour backbencher. Everything else to do with Bush and Blair leads Labour MPs back to reflecting on the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. Labour MPs think Mr Blair has gravely miscalculated the diplomatic methods to achieve the two-state solution. To appear to be party to, in their view, Mr Bush's one-sided support for Israeli aggression in Lebanon is therefore the last straw.

Which brings us neatly to position inside the cabinet of the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who made his own views clear to Muslims in his constituency last weekend. Mr Straw has effectively broken the formal discipline of collective cabinet responsibility. If such a discipline - or Mr Straw's reputation - is to count for anything, one wonders for just how much longer he can hold his views on something so fundamental as opposition to a major plank of British foreign policy while still sitting around the cabinet table.

Mr Straw is highly respected across the Labour Party and many wish that he was still in his previous post. He has hitherto been a loyal Blairite, but his loyalty to the Labour Party goes even deeper. He was shabbily treated and notwithstanding his acceptance of his demotion with good grace he must be wondering just how hard to play the powerful hand he has been unwittingly been dealt should a group of cabinet ministers decide that the time is up for Mr Blair.

Now that John Prescott has lost whatever authority he might have once claimed for himself, it is probably Mr Straw who has it in his power to lead any cabinet revolt against the Prime Minister. Mr Straw must still have a reasonable expectation of serving in a government led by Gordon Brown. Indeed he might even be the ideal deputy leader of the Labour Party. His chances of winning a ballot among MPs and constituency parties will have been enhanced by his recent outspokenness. Unlike Peter Hain or Alan Johnson, also potential contenders, he would have no prime ministerial ambitions to succeed Mr Brown - always a good qualification for a deputy.

There comes a point in the political life of every Prime Minister when they simply run out of road. And it is the most invincible who usually crash the hardest. Some months ago it seemed likely that whatever the provocations from Mr Blair over further reforms of public services, nuclear power and the replacement of Trident, Labour MPs would make loud noises but do nothing except cross off the days on the calendar until the Prime Minister called time on himself.

But something may just snap as backbenchers do their constituency rounds over the parliamentary recess. The pent up fury of party supporters and voters takes its toll on MPs going about the arduous business of defending the indefensible. I recall the final days both of Thatcher and Major, when the average Tory backbencher - especially in marginal seats - simply lost the appetite to face their party executives or the local media.

The desire for self-preservation has always ultimately driven Tory MPs and cabinets to remove their leaders when they have become an embarrassment. So far Mr Blair has been protected by the Labour Party's cumbersome structures from any enforced removal. But the mood this summer looks set to change. And, regardless of party rules, if the Cabinet and MPs pluck up the courage to recognise their own power, Mr Blair's authority will drain away as fast as Margaret Thatcher's before him. I predict tears before bedtime - or Christmas.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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