Friday, April 28, 2006

Tony Blair's "Meltdown".

I apologise to readers across the pond for this curiously parochial piece, but bear with me.

The survival of Blair does matter in American politics, as he is the last leader standing in Europe who supports Bush's insane invasion of Iraq and is still willing to stand up in public and say so, not seeming to be bothered by the hoots of derision and the open mouthed incredulity that these words now generate.

Papers over here are filled with stories of his ultimate demise.

This has all come about because of what has been referred to as Blair's "Black Wednesday". On this day Parliament erupted with calls for the resignation of his Home Secretary (Charles Clarke) - John Prescott (his Deputy Prime Minister) admitted to a two year affair - and Patricia Hewitt (his Health Secretary) attempted to make a speech in front of nurses that was greeted with so many catcalls and interruptions that she was unable to complete it and had to leave the platform.

It was a bad day at the office from any angle you cared to view it from.

And so British newspapers are filled with stories of Blair's ultimate demise, talking of an administration in "meltdown".

With the upcoming local elections almost certain to see Labour lose hundreds of seats, many are saying that - after the results become known - Blair will possibly have to step down.

But I think those who see Blair's dusk looming on the horizon are badly underestimating the Prime Ministers ability to create his own alternative reality and demand that the rest of us live in it, or at least demand that we debate it, which - in this televisual age - actually amounts to the same thing.

The alternative reality was first hinted at in Parliament by Charles Clarke. The charge against the Home Secretary is that he allowed 1,023 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and sex offenders, to walk free when legislation demanded that deportation be considered.

His problems were compounded when it was revealed that 288 of them were released after the Home Office was alerted to the problem.

For a Labour Party playing to the middle ground (in Britain this actually means playing to the right wing, slobbering readers of the Daily Mail) this has the potential to be catastrophic. Nothing incites the Mail readers more than the subject of immigration; and when it's immigrants who have committed crimes the Mail readers become incandescent in their outrage.

So Clarke is undeniably in big trouble.

His proposed solution? He admits that mistakes have been made and he accepts full responsibility for these mistakes. So far, so good. He has considered resigning but has decided that to do so would be dishonourable, as this is his mess and he is the one who should clean it up.

As alternative realities go it's actually rather fantastical. If you take this logic to it's natural conclusion then no-one would ever resign again no matter how serious the charges against them. Indeed, the graver the charges, the more incumbent it would be upon the offender to do "the honourable thing" and clear up the mess.

Now, most of us recognise that this is simply tosh. If you've proven yourself incompetent you should move out the way so that a competent person can be employed to do the job that you manifestly failed to do.

However, Clarke's stance is not without precedent. Indeed, he could be said to have learned from his master.

When Blair illegally invaded Iraq on the false claims that Saddam possessed WMD, one would have been forgiven for thinking that, when the sheer scale of the folly became public, Blair would have no option other than to resign in the same manner as Anthony Eden did after the failed invasion of Suez.

Those who made that assumption fundamentally underestimated Blair's ability to cling to power. A friend of mine who's in the Lords has always said that when Blair leaves Downing Street he'll leave the scratch marks of his fingernails along the door.

Confronted with Saddam's missing arsenal, Blair created the alternative reality that what mattered wasn't that, on one of the biggest foreign policy decisions of his time in office, Blair had got it catastrophically wrong. No, no, no.

Blair managed to move the goal posts - and the debate - to whether or not he got it catastrophically wrong "honourably".

There were many who accused him of cherry-picking the intelligence. To Blair this smacked of dishonour, and the subsequent heated national debate resulted in the death of Dr David Kelly, and the resignation of two members of the BBC and the editor of the Daily Mirror.

Blair remained firmly in his post, arguing that he may have got it wrong, but that he did so honourably.

So Clarke's convoluted logic is not without precedent, and those who see Blair's demise in all this fatally underestimate his ability to cling to power at all costs.

He'll leave scratch marks on the door, and the door is, as yet, unmarked.

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