07 September 2006

Blair’s downfall a giant blow to Bush

By Eric Jansson

The imminent end of Tony Blair’s leadership in Britain means the loss of George W Bush’s most treasured ally in the global war against terrorism.

The key question now is whether the President and the country will lose just Mr Blair, or whether the US will lose Britain as a whole.

The Bush administration lost Spain and Italy before, seduced away by a soft, anti-war European leftism offering false hopes and no viable policy alternatives. By comparison, the loss of Britain will be a massive, stunning blow.

It will happen in stages, less suddenly than the US’s loss of comparatively expendable former coalition members in Rome and Madrid – but far more importantly. For the loss of Britain from Mr Bush’s "coalition of the willing" will deprive the US of its prime advocate in Europe and its most persuasive rhetorical champion.

Abroad, it will gradually drain the coalition of its second-most potent fighting force. At home, it will strip Mr Bush of the propaganda value the alliance with Britain brings; Americans still cherish geopolitical echos of the old fighting days with Churchill, their gruff moral compass though the "Good War". It will split the English-speaking world in a dangerous age.

Mr Blair announced today that he will step down before September 2007. In so doing, he acknowledged his political impotence, effective immediately.

Even a lame duck is more powerful than a dead one. In Britain’s parliamentary system, where the prime minister does not personally wield executive power, they don’t go lame. They die.

Smiling at the funeral and muttering impatiently under his breath through the eulogy is the old-style Labour party bruiser who forced it: Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer.

The "coup attempt", as Blair allies are calling the power shift sweeping through Westminster and Downing Street, is engineered to force Mr Brown’s ascendancy to the post of prime minister no later than Christmas, although he may wait a few month longer if necessary. The very nature of this business tells us a lot about what Mr Brown is like.

Driven grimly by a need to lead, he has moaned privately for years that he deserves to govern. Almost anyone would be thrilled beyond their wildest dreams to wield the power Mr Brown has wielded for almost a decade as master of Britain’s purse – and more recently as Mr Blair’s imminent heir apparent. Not Mr Brown. His uninspiring egotism requires swifter satisfaction.

"Uninspiring" is the key word, for Mr Brown lacks a credible, inspiring and positive vision – precisely the asset Mr Blair brought to Labour when he took over party leadership in 1994, and the same asset that swept Labour to power in 1997.

It is also the asset that has kept Mr Blair at Mr Bush’s side through the horrifying series of bungles and crimes committed in Iraq, and this is the salient point.

The consequences of civil war in Britain’s Labour party are not necessarily obvious to policymakers in Washington who see Britain as a natural, traditional ally. Urgently, they need to grasp that without Mr Blair and his particular vision, Britain looks likely to turn away from Mr Bush’s policies and priorities across all the territories of the Great Game – from Palestine to Iraq, from Iran through Afghanistan to the Chinese border.

The US risks losing Britain at a key moment. Just weeks ago in Israel and Lebanon, the world received a foretaste of the conventional warfare that Iran stands ready to bring to the region, starting with her proxy forces in Hezbollah.

Such moments call for renewed unity. Instead, Mr Brown elected to make his cynical move at a time when it would throw Britain into the strategic paralysis of a leadership vacuum. No one is more pleased, surely, than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s ruthlessly practical president.

Yet beyond the current leadership vacuum, we can look forward to government under Mr Brown, and this is nothing to look forward to. It will be a very different kind of government, bowing as Mr Blair refused to bow to popular anti-war pressure from Labour lefties who, drawing on worn-out Communist-era stereotypes, see the United States as the world’s primary menace – and who view Israel as a menace in the Middle East.

Grassroots pressure for radical changes to Britain’s foreign policy is now immense. Tellingly, even local Labour party organisations have begun to turn on Mr Blair, siding with the Brown revolt. One local party leader in Islington spoke today on BBC Radio 4, explaining that Mr Blair’s support of Israel in the recent conflict with Hezbollah had been "the last straw".

Quite an extraordinary reason to overthrow a British prime minister.

Of course, Mr Brown may never get his chance to govern. As Mr Blair retreats from leadership, Mr Brown will discover that there remains a deep-seated popular mistrust of old-style, inward-looking Labour in today’s UK, a country reshaped and rebranded by the complementary legacies of Thatcherism and New Labour rule.

In which case David Cameron’s Conservatives may rise to the occasion. Yet their electoral position remains brittle, and they will not be risk-takers. Returned to power, the Conservatives would seek instinctively to befriend Washington and retain the "special relationship". But they have misplaced their confidence in the post-Thatcher era. Mr Cameron’s strategy for recovering it calls for sacrificing old presumptions. This may include, if necessary, the iron-clad alliance with Washington.

After watching Mr Blair’s leadership fall apart under pressure from anti-war pressure at the grassroots level, Mr Cameron will undoubtedly think twice before embracing the risky politics of principled alliance with the US.

Whoever finally comes out on top, Mr Brown or Mr Cameron, today is likely to be remembered as the beginning of the end of this political era in Britain.

Only a major security crisis can stop the rot, by exposing Mr Brown’s soft left as a greater sham than Mr Blair and his contingent ever were. Ironically, the major security crisis exists, but some prefer to pretend it does not.

No comments: