Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Last Days of Tony Blair

These are the last days of Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The signs of decline: a scandal involving backroom financial deals in exchange for favours and peerages, now being investigated by the British police; back bench disaffection over proposed reforms to the education system; the failure of public health reforms; Britain’s support of the US in Iraq; concerns over the undue influence of his wife, Cherie Blair – all are hallmarks of his last days.

A charismatic, inventive speaker and politician, he became Prime Minister in 1998 after the collapse, through disaffection and sleaze, of the Tory government of Sir John Major. Promising to clean up politics and to live by the highest standards, Blair proceeded to move quickly into a more Presidential style of government, speaking over his Ministers and using a small cabal of close advisors to drive policy and manage the media message.

Pushing public sector reform by increasing accountability, pouring billions into education and health in the hope of achieving dramatic performance improvements, Blair spoke the language of effectiveness, efficiency and reform. The National Health Service is now running massive deficits and performance has only marginally improved after £45b injection of funds. Schools continue to produce weak performance in comparison to other systems in other countries – hence the current call for reform.

The secret of Blair’s electoral success were an apparently strong economy, the massive investment in the public sector creating close to 1.8m new jobs in eight years (only 400,000 private sector jobs were created since Blair came to power) and the fact that there were no real alternative choices for a national leader from any of the opposition parties. Another factor was Blair’s art of denial - denial of the fact that Britain is now a high tax economy with growing public sector debt (now over £400b), denial of the pension liability Britain now faces and denial of the failure of the US:UK Iraq strategy. His own denials helped others deny reality too.

His legacy will be more about style than substance – about how to create and manage images, messages and the media. There are some specific achievements – enabling the IRA to disarm, a partial reform of the House of Lords, forgiving a large portion of African debt, creating an enhanced role for the private sector in the delivery of public services. But when set against the rhetoric of policy announcements, platform speeches and media messaging, these achievements are shallow. They will be greeted with the sound of one hand clapping.

Another reason for recognizing these as the last days of Blair is the arrival, just over 100 days ago, of a new leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron. Modeling himself after the early Blair and reinvigorating his party, Cameron presents real policy alternatives, a true alternative to Labour and an opportunity for the electorate to change leaders without a knee jerk change in the way Britain runs. Blair, seeing this, will soon make his call and move on.

Blair’s likely successor is Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a dour Scot from the Kingdom of Fife. Though he too will be tainted by the Labour Party’s current financial scandal, he is a classic tax and spend labour party leader who will have no new ideas to revitalize Britain or its ailing public services. He is now behaves as if he already is the Prime Minister, laying out policies on foreign affairs, security, the future of the European Union. HE may well win the leadership but be a short serving Prime Minister.

As the British Labour Party stares at bankruptcy – financial and intellectual – the British Conservative Party faces a new opportunity and a new challenge. Blair’s departure will put the spotlight on Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister in waiting.

Blair may seek office elsewhere – some have suggested the UN Secretary General position, available in 2007 or the EU Presidency – but he is more likely to follow the Bill Clinton’s money making lecture circuit, at which he will excel. Meantime, we can all begin to watch the final decline and fall of a leading G8 political figure.

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