Steve Richards: Blair has a new role: leader of the people against parts of his party and parliament

What he needs is an exit strategy that leaves him and his party more or less at one
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of course, he tried some of the old magical devices. Political conjurors do not give up easily. In advance of the vote he told MPs to focus on the issue. The policy was all that mattered. With an equal passion he urged them to back him on the purely tribal and irrelevant grounds that most Tory MPs were against the policy.

In another act of wizardry, he tormented Conservatives by staking out yet again terrain more familiar to them. He was acting on behalf of the police and the safety of the country. They were anti-police and indifferent to national security. In the past, this trick worked brilliantly. The Conservatives would have been quite capable of responding by arguing foolishly that 90 days were not long enough, giving Blair the space to declare that his position was less reactionary than Labour's main opponents. This time the Conservatives held their ground.

He waved his wand and nothing happened. But Blair must have known the limits of his latest conjuring act. Repeatedly, he was told there was no majority for his proposal. Admittedly, he sensed wrongly that there was a shift towards his position at the beginning of the week. Even so, he was still aware it was highly likely he would lose the vote.

So why did he go ahead? Some have argued that taking risks is highly characteristic of Blair. This is not the case. Normally he adopts a cause only when he knows he can win.

No doubt he acted partly out of conviction. To deploy that conveniently evasive phrase, he felt it was "the right thing to do". Before the election his warnings of the threat to security posed by terrorists were widely and lazily dismissed as "spin". Since then, he has been tragically vindicated. Ministerial allies of Gordon Brown tell me with as much force as the Blairites: the intelligence is frightening and there is a case for tougher laws. But this is not enough to explain why "90 Days" became the uncritical focus of Blair's political energy.

Blair has a tendency to accept unquestioningly the policy proposals of institutions not readily associated with the Labour party of the 1980s. After police leaders put in a bid for 90 days, he took it up as if he was their representative in Parliament.

I am reminded of a conversation with a senior figure from the CBI during Labour's first term. On a visit to Downing Street, he and his colleagues had decided on their top and bottom lines in a negotiation with Blair. They never got further than the top line. To their amazement, Blair was ready to accept all that they wanted. The police, business leaders, intelligence services and Republican presidents of the United States tend to get what they want from Downing Street. Old Labour was perceived as anti-police, anti-business, indifferent to security and anti-American. New Labour must be the opposite at all times.

But even a genuine conviction and a desire to deliver for the police does not explain what happened. After all, Blair might have got the police a longer period than 28 days and avoided a defeat if he had made concessions.

The key element in the extraordinary drama is the view of the voters. A big majority supported Blair's stance. When Blair has compromised in the past on Europe or the fuel protesters, he did so because his original position lacked popular support. In this case, out of misguided conviction and self-indulgence he sought to speak for Britain as he lost the vote.

It is part of Blair's political genius to contrive a situation where he appears to be a nobly embattled leader when he has the majority of public opinion and the most powerful newspapers behind him. It was the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, who was taking the much bigger risk by opposing Blair's populism in the midst of a Conservative leadership contest.

But there are greater risks for Labour in the longer term. If Labour MPs are in a position where they are persistently against Blair and in some cases the wishes of most voters, their party will be in dire trouble. Brown recognises this with a neurotic alertness. He is far from pleased at suggestions he was smiling with delight at the outcome of the vote. He does not want his finger tips near the trigger of any revolver, and nor does he wish to be on the wrong side of public opinion on the issues that whirl around Blair's final phase as leader. Ironically, as Labour turns away from Blair, the Chancellor needs to become more publicly supportive, at least for now. Some of the Chancellor's allies plot anxiously when Blair is thriving. They tend to keep their heads down when Blair appears to be doomed.

In such a context it is possible that Blair will succeed in getting through the proposed reforms of the public services with the support of Conservative MPs, a dreadful position for Labour and deeply uncomfortable for Blair if he is serious in his desire for his party to win the next election.

In his interviews on Wednesday, Blair hinted that he would call a vote of confidence in the event of further defeats. Again the symbolism would be disastrous, given Blair's relatively big majority - a party and its leader at war. So Blair will also have to make concessions unless he seeks further terrible defeats, this time not necessarily with most voters behind him. As I argued on Tuesday, he has no choice other than to play the resolute leader in a position where compromise is unavoidable.

But in the context of his most calamitous defeat, Blair has acquired a new role as leader of the people against parts of his party and parliament. Listen to ministers over the next few days citing the polls that back Blair's views on the anti-terror laws.

Blair speaks for the people! Labour MPs rebel on principle! What Blair needs is an exit strategy that leaves him and his party more or less at one. The significance of this week is that such a rosy scenario seems less likely than ever before. That should worry Blair, Brown and those Labour MPs who plan to strike again and again.