Ten years ago today as dawn broke over London a helicopter delivered Tony Blair and his wife to a victory rally on the South Bank. Later he would go to Buckingham Palace to be invited to become Prime Minister. This was a moment for his party to savor.
As the various characters we came to know and
love know embarrassed themselves to various degrees with their attempts to dance, the loudspeakers blared the campaign song “Things can only get better”. There was undoubtedly an air of excitement. The Thatcher years ended with her sobbing in the back of her car as she left Downing Street, a sight at which only those with a heart of stone could fail to shed a smile. Her successor, John Major, although basically a fairly decent man was surrounded by his “bastards”. At the end, the country was just tired of the Tories.
Ten years on and we are on the eve of a new set of elections and change is again in the air. Now the country is just tired of Blair.
The comparisons between the end of the last Conservative period in office and the current Labour government are compelling. Blair has become what might politely be called accident prone. It was corruption and sleaze that did for the Tories and Blair is leaving under a cloud. His premiership started with a scandal about funding when Formula 1 racing was excluded from a ban on advertising, only for it to be discovered that the owner of F1, Bernie Ecclestone, had given £1million to Labour prior to the election. He ends with the police file on allegations of giving honours in exchange for large party donations going to the Crown Prosecution Service for them to assess charges against close aides. Yesterday the head of BP was forced to resign after lying in court to cover up how he met his former boyfriend. While not directly involved in politics, Lord Browne is a friend of Blair during whose premiership he was knighted (in 1998) and made a life peer in 2001.
Blair’s appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions today may well be his last as party leader. Yesterday he told an interviewer on a morning news show “I’ll make my position clear next week, I’ll say something definitive then.” That announcement will quite likely be next Wednesday in an attempt to get good news out of Northern Ireland to provide a “legacy” – or to cover up failure to construct a new power sharing executive if that occurs. Blair will remain as Prime Minister until a new Labour Party Leader is chosen.
Before then will be a likely trauma of elections in Scotland, Wales and England outside London. Labour is expected to do badly.
In Scotland and Wales the Parliament and Assembly members are selected by an “additional member” system of proportional representation. This sets aside “top up” seats while most are elected according to a constituency. Electors have two votes. One is for the local MSP or AM. The other is a party vote. After the constituency members have been elected by the usual “first past the post” method, party popularity is reflected by allocating additional members to parties which do not get enough ordinary seats for their popularity to be represented in the chambers.
In Scotland the outgoing administration was a Labour (largest party) and Liberal Democrat coalition. Labour is likely to lose to the Scottish Nationalists who may well become the largest single party. Possible scenarios are a Lab/Lib Dem coalition with a bare majority, a “grand coalition” of those opposed to the Scots Nats or a Scots Nats/Lib Dem coalition with a condition being the SNP drop the promised referendum on independence in the third year of the parliament.
In Wales, Labour is again likely to lose to the Nationalist, Plaid. Currently they have an overall majority and seem set to lose it. A Labour/Lib Dem coalition is possible, there has been a similar arrangement before.
In England, the Lib Dems are likely to win the same or fewer seats as the last elections were held during the height of their popularity for their opposition to the Iraq War. Here the Tories are likely to gain seats at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems. In a few areas like Norwich, the Greens may gain seats at the expense of Labour. The benchmarks in these elections will be the number of council seats lost or gained and the number of councils changing control.
The outcome will not be a happy one for the dour Scot, Gordon Brown to take over from the Scot pretending to be English, Blair. Although he will try to demonstrate a distance from his predecessor, Brown is a co-creator of the “New Labour Project”. His saving grace for the moment will be the close association of the sleeze over party funding with Blair. As Chancellor he has been remarkably lucky in having a long period of sustained growth. Whether this can or will carry on remains to be seen. Despite some windowdressing, the actual policies are unlikely to be radically different from Blair’s. Things will be much the same.