The party is over. Ten years in office, some of them even in power, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair departs not amid the farewell tour that his aides planned just last year but with an embarrassing and forced goodbye.
This is not a transition. This is a push and a putsch. Delayed, disguised but deliberate. Blair is being ditched by his own party to be replaced by a man with whom he has been barely on speaking terms since 1997.
All political careers end in failure but nothing in British foreign policy since the war matches the Iraq catastrophe. Failure is too mild a term. It destabilised the Middle East and made real a link between Iraq and terrorism that had only previously existed in the warped minds of Washington neo-cons. Fantasy was turned into reality by an act of calamity.
The Middle East has been a wretched place for the reputation of British prime ministers. Suez did it for Anthony Eden, the withdrawal from east of Suez helped cripple Harold Wilson.
Ted Heath was ruined by the oil price hike of 1973. Such a rate of attrition should mean that Gordon Brown at least familiarises himself with Middle East issues though the chancellor has been economical in his utterances of anything east of Norfolk.
Arms for Saddam
Margaret Thatcher was pushed aside during the build up to the military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. While that had nothing to do with her departure events in the Middle East tarnished her government.
The Scott inquiry into weapons sales to Saddam made for macabre political theatre. There were the Tories saying they hadn’t given Saddam weapons when they had and there was Blair saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when they hadn’t. Neither was it just Iraq.
Lebanon cost Blair his job. During the Israeli bombardment last summer when Blair’s silence stunned his supporters, he was told by close aides that his time was up. Iraq was the one way ticket but Lebanon was what checked him into the departure lounge where he has been languishing for the last year.
Blair is the highest political casualty of Israel’s summer war with Lebanon.
Ten years ago Blair did not just win a landslide. The Labour victory resembled a meteorite that extinguished the dinosaurs of John Major’s government. It ushered in Cool Britannia, the Third Way, if not a new dawn then perhaps hopes for a pleasant evening.
The ramparts had been stormed. Some of us had even stayed up for Portillo. Even that special word, a word that encapsulates, youth, hope and a just cause was being uttered by political correspondents.
Camelot. Tony was not JFK and Cherie was no Jackie, but there was a young vibrant family in Downing Street. You could almost imagine Blair shoving state papers aside to help out with the homework. He was a man whose circumstances, young father, new job, progressive, a touch unsure, people could relate to. And it worked, in part.
Northern Ireland, an issue that had bedevilled relations between Britain and Ireland since Lloyd George was put on the path to settlement by Blair in Easter 1998. His behaviour during the days following Diana’s death was exemplary. He was beginning to deliver.
But he wanted a second term more than he wanted reform in Britain, and when the second term came in 2001 he allied himself with White House extremism and sacrificed his idealism.
He won another election because like Bill Clinton, he chose his political opponents well and the full realisation of the Iraq fiasco was not yet fully appreciated by the public.
It is now, which is why he is going. Make no mistake about it, if the Labour hierarchy believed that could deliver one more election victory, if the backbenchers thought that he was an asset, he would still be Blair of Downing Street and not demobbed Tony of civvy street.
But his silence on Lebanon condemned him. There was no excuse for it and his most ardent supporters in the cabinet knew that he no longer commanded the party. Which is why 10 years after Blair first walked up Downing Street the British will have to chose at the next general election between a Scottish socialist and an Eton environmentalist.
Old school politics returns.