LONDON — The struggle for the succession to the premiership, when Tony Blair finally goes, is assuming all the qualities of a Shakespearean play.
Shakespeare wrote copiously about the bitter, and often bloody, disputes between rivals for the English throne, with weak kings being ousted by ambitious rivals, devious plots to seize the crown, and faction and treason in abundance.
Now the pattern is being re-enacted, complete with conspiracies, denials, opposing camps, vindictive personal attacks, dramatic entries and exits and all the other excitements to keep the audience at fever pitch. As so often, true life is outperforming the stage, as Blair’s grasp on power weakens and the chief claimant to fill his role, Gordon Brown, gathers his troops and allies round him and prepares his bid for the crown.
Since Blair some time ago announced his intention to retire before the next British general election, probably in 2009, it might be imagined that this would pave the way for a reasonably smooth succession process. With his hitherto close ally and friend Brown, being long acknowledged as the second most powerful man in the Cabinet and the ruling Labour Party after Blair himself, a graceful and amiable passing on of the mantle at the agreed moment might have been expected.
But that would be to reckon without all the personal ambitions, antagonisms, hopes and fears of modern politics, as well as the heavy influence of outside events that make up the political brew. Blair has said he will depart sometime next year, giving his successor ample time to settle in before the general election battle. But Brown and his allies are getting impatient, and with good reason. Events may not be working their way.
Hitherto Brown has been able to sustain his right to the political throne on the basis of a relatively successful tenure at the Treasury (Finance Ministry) and his own experience and obvious ability. But now some clouds are gathering.
First, the economic outlook may no longer be quite so cloudless, with inflation returning, the world economy slowing, personal debt piling up and talk of still higher taxes to meet ever-swelling public-spending commitments. Second, with the Conservative main opposition party now headed by an agile and dynamic young figure, David Cameron, Brown is beginning to be seen as — in the fashionable expression — a bit “yesterday,” on the old side and too closely associated not just with Blair’s triumphs but also with his failures. Third, he is seen as charmless and dour (which is probably unfair, since he has a brilliant wit) and filled with out-of-date ideas about the need for excessive governmental control of people’s lives and work — in other words, more of an old-fashioned state socialist than Blair, who had managed to drag the British Labour Party away from statist thinking and centralism toward a less interventionist and more market-friendly stance.
The awful thought is entering the minds of the Labour rank-and-file, and especially the minds of younger Labour members of Parliament with small majorities, that changing Blair for Brown may after all be not such a good idea and could weaken rather than strengthen Labour’s standing in the public mind.
The whole scene tends to be analyzed in domestic terms, but the backdrop to the drama lies, as so often in Shakespeare’s original plays, in foreign fields.
Labour supporters have come to distrust Blair because they strongly dislike his foreign policy. They loathe his alliance with U.S. President George W. Bush, which they regard as much too close and also too subservient, and they are utterly dismayed at the course of events in Iraq and the Middle East generally, and at the Bush doctrine for creating “A New Middle East” by a mixture of imposed democracy and overwhelming force — which seems anyway to be both shallow and flawed.
The feeling is widespread, and not just in Labour ranks, that as America’s world reputation sags, Britain’s reputation and influence have been dragged down with it into the Iraqi quagmire. The Blair stance on the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon — appearing to back American approval for the heavy-handed methods used — was for many the final straw.
As the killing in the Middle East continues, and the Bush strategy falters more and more, a mood of “anything but Blair” has rapidly developed.
As so often with emotional impulses, the mood leaves a number of hard and detailed questions unresolved. Will Brown be any different or better on the overseas front? If Cameron and the Conservatives start inching away from blanket approval of American policy, will Brown do so, too? Or might Labour fortunes be improved by turning to a younger candidate who could make a clean break with Blairite thinking and put up a better fight against the youthful Conservative challenger in two or three years’ time?
A number of younger rivals to Brown are beginning to emerge, complicating the dilemma for Labour MPs and giving the media juicy material to cover page after page of stories about the in-fighting, the rumors and the political maneuvering.
Blair keeps smiling, and traveling the world in his statesman role. But he must rue the day he announced that he would be going, so setting a period of feverish speculation in motion. He must also wonder whether his foreign-policy balance, with its attempt to be a “bridge” between the United States and Europe, can hold up, or whether it is leaving Britain in a kind of limbo, as many fear, with diminished influence on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps as events swirl around him and fickle destiny unfolds, he might find comfort in a little Shakespeare — preferably one of the plays that ends in triumph rather than tragedy.
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