Jonathan Freedland on Blair
"All this is evidence of Blair's mastery of politics. The trouble is, that's not the same as an ability to govern".A peerless act of betrayal
Blair's mastery of political blood sports has given him the edge. But Brown's record may yet trump him
Wednesday October 6, 2004
In this political season, where men on both sides of the Atlantic are frantically offering themselves up for public approval - a beauty contest for unlovely people - it seems right to ask: what makes a good politician? It's not a simple business. John Kerry was declared the winner of last week's TV debate not only because of his concisely expressed criticisms of the invasion of Iraq, but also because of his demeanour. He displayed that elusive, indefinable quality: he looked presidential. The timbre of his voice, his posture and bearing, gave him an aura of steady authority. George Bush, by contrast, looked tetchy - and that was when he wasn't smirking. Still, Bush has other strengths to draw on. He is so determined, so ruthless a fighter that there is almost no trick he won't pull between now and November 2 to get elected. He's proved that before - in the 2000 primaries against John McCain, the Florida stand-off that year, and the mid-term elections of 2002. The methods might have been foul - full of dishonesty, cynicism and hypocrisy - but they worked. Bush won.
The trouble with both these qualities - an aura of gravitas or a talent for political blood sport - is that, while either might bring you electoral success, neither ensures skill in the area that politics should be about: governing. For proof, look no further than our own country. In the brute business of politics - winning and keeping power - Tony Blair is a truly world-class performer. As a speechmaker, he gets better and better. You only had to watch Michael Howard in Bournemouth yesterday to realise how good Blair was in Brighton a week ago. He combines light and shade, switching effortlessly from soft-spoken and sincere to loud and declamatory. He seduces an audience, as if in private conversation.
But he is not accomplished in the performance art of politics alone. His move last Thursday night - the dramatic triple announcement of cardiac surgery, a house move and a determination to stay in the job for one more term - won plaudits as a stunning piece of political footwork. He had turned a moment of vulnerability into an act of aggression, asserting his own primacy. Any circling sharks were told to withdraw their fangs for a few years at least. It's not just the little moves that Blair gets right. He's done pretty well on the big ones too. The depth of the Tories' plight, so vividly on show in Bournemouth, is very much Blair's achievement. By colonising the centre ground and beyond, he has left them homeless.
All this is evidence of Blair's mastery of politics. The trouble is, that's not the same as an ability to govern. There, a different picture emerges. After seven and a half years in power, even Blair's admirers talk of his almost desperate search for a legacy. They concede that the large domestic achievements of this administration are associated with the Treasury rather than with him, and that little bearing the Blair stamp will endure long after he has gone. Even the big constitutional changes - devolution to Scotland and Wales - are attributed more to his predecessor than to him.
The problems he defined in opposition have persisted, or at least that is the impression he gives. His constant talk of reform of the public services implies that the public services are broken and need fixing. Judged by his own rhetoric, he has failed the big domestic tests he set for himself. Those decisions with which Blair is intimately associated tend to be unhappy ones. In the innocent days of the 2001 election, it was the Dome that he could not quite shake off. Next time it will be the much graver matter of Iraq.
Put simply, Blair may one day be viewed as a first-class politician whose record in government was not in the same league. The contrasting figure is Gordon Brown. His record in government is gargantuan: a stable, record-breaking economy; a minimum wage; action on child poverty; a move to full employment; unprecedented investment in public services, blessed by the public; and a war on global debt. Yet his record in politics does not look quite so accomplished. Of course, it's a major achievement to have stayed in the exchequer as long as he has - most have failed to hold on - and to have retained the electorate's support throughout. Labour's private polling has Brown's trust-rating around plus-65, while Blair's languishes around minus-20. But in the cruel game of politics, there is only one measure that counts - and that is winning the big prize.
On this test, Brown has shown none of the ruthless skill of his neighbour. In November 2003, Blair promised he would stand down a year later in Brown's favour - so long as Brown helped him through the period ahead, allowing Blair to make a graceful exit. He had to get through Hutton and Iraqi reconstruction, and wanted a couple of domestic achievements. Brown duly cooperated - pulling the plug on a backbench tuition fees revolt which might have proved terminal to Blair, offering a public defence of the Iraq policy and even shelving his own misgivings on foundation hospitals and the like.
Blair pocketed all that help, got through the year - and then promptly announced the deal was off. As an act of political betrayal, it has few rivals. (And now the Blairites have the chutzpah to say it was Brown who reneged on the deal - a deal which, they hastily add, did not exist!) Express dismay at this treachery and Blair's defenders will only redouble their admiration. As one put it to me: "That's showbiz." In other words, politics is a tough game and Brown has simply not proved tough enough for it. Good at governing he might be, but as a practitioner of the blood sport he's not quite top-notch. He lacks the killer instinct.
Yet this story may end in a twist. For what if Blair's skill was not so much in politics, as in short-term politics? Last week's move certainly brought a good instant hit on the TV news, swapping negative for positive coverage. But the after-effects of pre-announcing his own eventual resignation have not been good, even for Blair himself. Cartoonists are already depicting the prime minister as a lame duck. Drawing up the manifesto will be "impossible", says one insider, as former colleagues see each other as rivals in a now-declared leadership contest and position themselves accordingly. Rather than a smooth transition, which would have safeguarded his legacy, Blair has ensured a dogfight which could imperil it.
Brown's long game, by contrast, might pay off. Trusted by the public, eschewing the short-term, quick hits of his neighbour, he remains the natural inheritor when the arrangement announced last week finally breaks down - as surely it will.
There is a touch of the tortoise and the hare about this story. Until now, Blair's darting and weaving has kept him ahead, while Brown's steady plodding has held him in perennial second place. If Brown prevails, he would prove that government and politics are not different disciplines after all, that to succeed in one brings rewards in the other - eventually.