The Conscience of the King

He that is proud eats up himself. Pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.
The History of Troilus and Cressida (Agamemnon at II, iii)

When defeat is inevitable, it is wisest to yield.
Marcus Fabuis Quintilianus

I want to start this article with a simple propostion – Tony Blair is not the Labour Party.

Blair may be our elected leader and the Prime Minister but no one man is bigger than the party itself and any reasoned assessment of yesterday’s vote on the 90-day detention clause in the Terrorism Bill has to be framed in terms of what that defeat may mean for the party and not just its potential implications for Blair itself.

If one follows the thinking of the media on yesterday’s events the the big issue of the moment is Blair’s personal authority – it isn’t.

It may well suit the press to put a personal spin on events – in these celebrity-obsessed times its all too often personalitis that make for the best sales figures and not policies – but as party members we have to look beyond such things and ask ourselves where yesterday leaves the party as a whole, particularly in terms of our aspirations to press on from an unprecidented third election victory towards an even more unprecedented fourth term and our first election of the post-Blair era.

The questions this raises about Blair and his future actions as leader of the party are, therefore, not about his authority but about his judgement and the extent to which we, as party members, can now rely on that judgement to take us forward and keep us on track for victory number four.

I don’t believe that we can.

In many respects we got off lightly as a party yesterday evening.

We may have to put up with a bit of short-lived crowing from the opposition from their having helped to inflict on Blair his first defeat in eight years – something which sticks in the throat even on an issue as important as this – but any satisfaction that the opposition could or should draw from yesterday will inevitably be short-lived and with good reason.

The Tories will, in particular, come to rue the timing of this vote. With their own leadership election in full swing and requiring them to be seen to be treating both candidates with an even hand, neither Cameron or Davis has been able to take centre stage and start landing blows on Blair over last night’s vote for fear of the party being seen to be unduly favouring one over the other.

Instead it’s been left to Michael Howard to carry the fight to Labour; to grasp, for perhaps the last time, the chance to show the British people just what kind of Prime Minister he would have made…

…and drop the ball, yet again, within the first few strides.

The Tories, in truth, cannot be happy with Howard’s performance.

A more able and politically astute Tory leader would have flayed Blair alive over the manner of his defeat. They would have wrapped themselves firmly in the flag and pronounced in sonorous tones how it was the solemn and patriotic duty of the Conservative to stand up for the freedom and liberty of British citizens and to preserve our way of life and the principles of justice on which it’s founded, even in the face of the threat posed by modern-day terrorism.

There was, for the Tories, a right tone to be struck in carrying the attack to Labour; one rooted firmly Churchill’s famous paean to the British spirit and promise that ‘we will never surrender’ but with echoes of the Hollywood version of Willaim Wallace when talking of freedom and liberty. That most endangered of political species, the Scottish Tory, might even have found time to recall the words of the Declaration of Arbroath:

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Instead of which we get repetitions of the tired ‘lame duck’ line – with Charlie Chuckles firmly in tow – and calling for Blair to resign – given the clearest shot at an open goal in eight years, all the Leader of the Opposition can manage is to pull a Gareth Southgate – leaving us lefties to rejoice in the sure and certain knowledge that not only did we win the day but the party also got off pretty lightly thanks to the ineptitude of our opponents.

Still we have to face the question of Blair’s judgement and where that leaves us as a party and in that we must exercise genuine caution.

For too long it’s all looked far too easy. An unelectable opposition and a comfortable road to the succession and the ascendancy of Gordon Brown, the heir apparent, has bred complacency and the mistaken belief in many that we can simply let things take their natural course.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The biggest threat to the prospects of fourth victory lies not in the resurgence of the Tories under a new leader – whoever that turns out to be – but in our own failure to recognise the inherent risks of sticking with a leader who is palpably more concerned with his own personal legacy than he is with the future prospects of the party and who, so it appears today, is prepared even to sacrifice what meagre shreds of personal reputation his own Home Secretary retains in order to protect his own, now dented, aura of invulnerabilty and let Charles Clarke take the fall in his place.

Of course, Blair doesn’t see things this way. It’s all the fault of MPs for being ‘out of touch with the public and failing to face the terror threat‘ even though he has the temerity to have ‘Downing Street’ claim that Blair is “in no way saying he is going to let the home secretary take the rap”, even if that’s obviously what Clarke is doing in hawking himself around the media and giving it the full sackcloth and ashes routine on the decision to press on with the vote on 90 days while parroting Blair’s line that he’s right and everyone else is just a bunch of bastards.

If it were only this one issue then maybe, just maybe, one might put this all down to a one-off lapse in judgement – but it isn’t.

Blair has made it perfectly clear that the agenda that government is currently following is his agenda and that he regrets not going far enough with his earlier reforms. Labour’s successes over the last eight years in delivering a stable economy which has outperformed the rest of Europe, low inflation, unemployment at a level which near as damn it meets the official definition of full employment and the virtual eradication to long-term youth unemployment appear to mean nothing to Blair.

Why should they when they’re only the policies of his government but not, clearly enough to satisfy his own sense of self-importance, his own.

I’ve been meaning to respond to this comment from Bloggers4Labour:

“Is there anything the Labour Party can ever do that doesn’t involve us standing in the corner after 5 or 10 years, feeling ashamed for having won elections and made a difference to people’s lives at home and abroad? There’s always got to be a betrayal somewhere.”

And now seems the right time to do so.

Just who’s telling us to go ‘stand in the corner’ here?

Not ordinary party members and certainly not the 49 MPs who voted against 90 day detentions. All that is coming from Blair himself and all because we have the nerve to hold, still, to the belief that when it says that Labour is a ‘democratic socialist party’ on our membership cards that still means something. It does to us but self-evidently not to Blair.

If Blair’s personal authority and judgement is now open to question its because he has, over eight years, worked tirelessly to personalise the whole nature of government in the UK.

This last eight years is shot through with examples of Blair’s personal agenda dragging the party into decisions which run contrary to every instinct and principle of its members.

On Iraq, where a personal commitment to support Bush’s desert adventure led us to fabricate a case for war which has subsequently proven to be entirely without merit and which many of those doing the fabricating knew full well would not stand up to scrutiny.

On Europe, where his stance on Iraq undid all the gains made in his first term of office, driving Britain back out on to the fringes of the European at a time where we had made our way to the centre and were within an ace of breaking through the old Franco-German alliance and creating room for some real democratic change.

On reform of the House of Lords, where a personal intervention by Blair in revealing his voting intentions at PMQs – remember Blair generally makes only around 5-10% of Commons votes over a full session – effectively sabotaged the entire reform process.

In case anyone is any doubt what happened here, this is segment of PMQs where it all happened.

David Clelland (Tyne Bridge, Lab)

Does the Prime Minister recall telling Sir David Frost in January 2002 that a reformed House of Lords must be different from the House of Commons? Does he believe that an elected Chamber would be sufficiently different? Does he agree with those of us who believe that a properly constituted, non-elected Chamber, free from the hereditary system, is the only way to guarantee the kind of deliberative, advisory and balanced second Chamber that would add value to our system of government in the United Kingdom?

Note that Blair is being fed an obvious under-arm delivery and being invited to smash it out the ground – such things do not happen by accident during PMQs

Tony Blair (Prime Minister, HM Treasury)

My briefing very helpfully starts by saying, “I understand that there are a range of views on this issue.” However, everyone agrees that the status quo should not remain. Everyone agrees that the remaining hereditary peers should go and, what is more, that the prime ministerial patronage should also go. However, the issue then is whether we want an elected—

[Interruption.]

I am asked for my views; I am giving them. Do we want an elected House, or do we want an appointed House? I personally think that a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work.

I also think that the key question on election is whether we want a revising Chamber or a rival Chamber. My view is that we want a revising Chamber, and I also believe that we should never allow the argument to gain sway that, somehow, the House of Commons is not a democratically elected body. I believe that it is democratic.

[Hon. Members: “A free vote?”]

It is a free vote; people can vote in whatever way they want, but I think that all Members, before they vote, should recognise that we are trying to reach a constitutional settlement—not for one Parliament, but for the long term. In my view, we should be cognisant not just of our views as Members of Parliament, but of the need to make sure that we do not have gridlock and that our constitution works effectively.

Note the comment from members in there querying Blair’s reference to a free vote – this is not because they were unaware that a free vote would take place but rather a reflection that it is unusual if not unprecedented for a Prime Minister to announce their voting intentions on a free vote during PMQs given that such a comment may influence the outcome of the vote.

As further evidence here, let me add two exchanges from the previous week’s Business Questions to the Leader of the House (the late Robin Cook).

Paul Tyler (North Cornwall, LDem)

…Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity now or at least before the debate announced for 4 February to reiterate the Government’s position on the reform of the House of Lords? I do not know whether in his busy morning he had an opportunity of to read the speech—I suppose it was a speech, but it was actually an extraordinarily bloodcurdling diatribe—from the Lord Chancellor [Derry Irvine]. Yesterday in the other place the Lord Chancellor referred to an imaginary centre of gravity. It is the centre of gravity which the Leader of the House is constantly urging us to reach. On a number of occasions during that extraordinary speech the Lord Chancellor made peculiar references to the issue of hybridity. For example, he referred to

“my mission in this debate to save us from the parliamentary disaster of hybridity.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. 831W.]

He then made some other references to that. Does the Leader of the House accept that in making this extraordinary statement the Lord Chancellor has not only ignored the mandate of the Labour Party at two successive general elections, but torn up the White Paper to which he put his own name and which advocated hybridity and mixed membership, and ignored the advice of the royal commission set up by the Government, the Public Administration Select Committee of this House and the report of the Joint Committee of both Houses which, in theory at least, his House was debating yesterday as we did on Tuesday? Can the Leader of the House now give us an absolute guarantee that the Members of the other place, who after all have a lot of self-interest in this matter, will not be allowed a veto—that the turkeys will not be allowed to vote against Christmas?

Robin Cook (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons)

…I have not, as yet, studied fully the Lord Chancellor’s speech so I cannot therefore say whether it is a bloodcurdling diatribe. On the whole, however, bloodcurdling diatribes are better studied in the hours of darkness than in the morning. On the question of the centre of gravity, I stress to the House that it is important that all of us—this is not just a matter for me, the Lord Chancellor or the Government—try to identify our centre of gravity on 4 February. That will require Members to show some flexibility, not necessarily insisting on their first and best priority, but finding common ground with others on where the best compromise can be found with the largest support for reform of the second Chamber. I would be surprised if that compromise did not require some form of mixed membership. A year ago, the Government committed themselves to mixed membership of the upper House when we proposed 20 per cent. elected and 80 per cent. appointed. It is not my impression that that White Paper was unpopular because it proposed 20 per cent. elected members; the difficulty with public opinion was in relation to the 80 per cent. appointed. I am doubtful about whether we will remove those anxieties on the part of public opinion by going for 100 per cent. appointed.

And

George Young (North West Hampshire, Con)

To return to the debate that the Leader of the House has announced for 4 February—the second leg of the two-day debate on House of Lords reform—he will recall that, in his important contribution to the debate on Tuesday, he repeatedly referred to the Labour manifesto that committed the party to a more democratic upper House. Against that background, can he give the House an unequivocal assurance that there can be no question of the Prime Minister voting for a wholly appointed second Chamber?

Robin Cook (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons)

I would not seek to give an assurance on behalf of any Member of the House. Seven options will be before the House and any Member is open to vote for any of those seven options [Quite obviously this indicates a free vote on reform of the Lords]. I have made my position clear from the Dispatch Box, and I will do so again on 4 February. There is no collective Government view on the matter, and I would deprecate any attempts to read into the expression of view of any one member of the Government a collective view on behalf of everybody else. [As does this]

Following the debate on 4 Feb 2003, only four of the seven options went to vote – splits of 50/50, 20 elected/80 appointed and 40 elected/60 appointed were rejected without a division.

Blair voted in only one division – in favour of a fully appointed second chamber – and no showed all other divisions, reiterating his personal position which was followed almost slavishly by the majority of Blair loyalists in thier voting against on all other divisions.

The closest we got to result was on an 80 elected/20 appointed split which went down by a mere 3 votes – you can review the full proceedings of the debate here.

I think it fair to say that a fair number of Labour MP’s who supported a second chamber with a majority or total elected membership left that debate – which ended in rather a shambles as all seven options were rejected – feeling that Blair had stitched them up – even Robin Cook intimates as much in his book ‘The Point of Departure’ while noting, as well, that prior to the debate the Labour Whips were working overtime to marshall opposition (unofficially of course) to anything other than an appointed chamber.

One can also point all too readily to the convenient number of last minute policy and positions shifts and amendments which invariably crop up whenever legislation might serve to inhibit the ability of religious, and especially christian groups to express their prejudices freely. Thus it’s now unlawful to discriminate against anyone in employment on grounds of their sexuality…

…unless you have religious grounds to do so.

And, of course, it was intimated all along that the Religious Hatred Bill would repeal blasphemy laws which cover only Christianity, only for that to disppear from the government’s agenda as well.

A striking characteristic of both cases was that only at a very late stage did it become apparent that that religious groups would get such concessions – in the case of outlawing discrimination in employment the amendment went in after the report stage of the Bill.

Now, with the clock ticking away on the Blair Supremacy we find him pushing harder than ever for reforms in education, health, incapacity benefit and, of course, detentions without charge, which go almost entirely against the grain of the Labour Party’s most deeply held beliefs.

If these policies hit trouble either with members of the PLP in the Commons or amongst ordinary members it is because they are not policies that members believe in or feel able to support – losing a vote on a clause in the current Terrorism Bill may be embarassing but then so is the sight of the Tory party cheering the introduction of a Labour white paper on education while Labour ranks sit in stony silence and embracing Blair’s agenda as if it were their own – which of course it is.

What could possibly be more galling for the party to than to see Blair pressing ahead with policies where he well end up relying on Tory votes to get his own way in the face of opposition from his own party – is that not somehow an implicit transfer of power and authority to the opposition, one which conveys the false idea that they can be trusted with public services and which legitimises their ambitions of government.

Of all the debates we’ve won in the last eight years, those on the principle that investment in the NHS and in education is worth paying for are the most important – by placing these public services at the heart of our agenda we’ve almost reduced the electoral impact of naked bribery, in the form of tax cuts, to nothing and yet Blair now seems to be prepared to throw all that away in pursuit of his own sense of personal destiny.

Blair’s ego is such that while he studiously avoids any hint of when he might call it a day, the actual date he’s aiming for is patently obvious – no earlier than 26 November 2008.

Why that particular date? Quite simply because that’s the day on which he would overtake Thatcher as the longest-serving Prime Minister of the modern era. Can’t you just smell how much Blair would love to add that one to his personal record.

Suppose that is what he has in mind, what would that mean for the party?

Well first, the earliest he could announce that he was going would be the 2008 party conference – as with Howard, the time it would take to go through the process of calling an election under our own system would take him safety past his target date before the handover of power could take place.

In the meantime, his successor – let’s assume it’s Gordon – would have alomst no room for manoeveur as regards going the timing of the next general election. If things look good for going early, it will be with Blair taking us through the final Queen’s speech before an election and little time for Gordon to establish himself as PM. If we delay until 2010, who knows what we may be risking – Jim Callaghan knew all about delaying elections and the kind of things that can, and do, go wrong when you fail to seize the initiative.

That’s the fundamental question that all Labour Party members should be asking themselves right now, and one we should revisit regularly as we move forward with this present parliamentary term.

Is it still in the best interests of the party to have Blair at the helm?

There can be no room for sentiment here at all.

Blair’s time is coming to a close, that we all know. What we must, however, all face up to is the necessity of understanding that should he continue to put his personal agenda and belief in his own legacy before the best interests of the party then he must be given the choice – go quietly or be removed.

There is no room for sentiment here.

And won’t it just be ironic should it transpire that the man who, for eight years, has taken the credit for re-educating Labour in the art of winning adn dome more than almost anyone else to push the line that ‘winning is everything’ should end up falling short in his ambitions to cement his personal legacy because winning is something the party has learned all too well.

If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Julius Caesar (Brutus at Act III, ii)