Blair’s long game

12 May 06
PETER WILBY | The smart money, even before last year’s general election, was always on a Tory election win in 2009 or 2010.

The smart money, even before last year’s general election, was always on a Tory election win in 2009 or 2010.

According to the latest Populus poll for the Times, that view is now shared by 65% of voters. I’d be amazed if it wasn’t Tony Blair’s view, too — although he wouldn’t admit it, probably not even to Cherie.

So I suspect everyone has missed the real importance of the latest ministerial reshuffle. It matters not so much for its effect on Blair’s final period in Downing Street as for its bearing on how Labour will renew itself in opposition and prepare for government again around 2014.

You might think this a fanciful interpretation. But bear with me. Few prime ministers accept that, when they leave office, they will no longer play a significant role.

Churchill, having at last been persuaded to retire in his 80s, offered to return to government during the Suez crisis a year later. Anthony Eden, seriously ill as well as discredited when he left office in 1957, refused a peerage until 1961, apparently believing the nation would eventually demand a glorious return.

Margaret Thatcher, ousted at 65, undermined the next two Tory leaders.

Blair, even if he hangs on until 2008, will be younger than any of them. Do we seriously believe that a man with such a strong sense of mission will be content to drop off the political radar? He will want to protect his legacy, to ensure Labour doesn’t go back to what he sees as its bad old ways.

That question will be resolved decisively only when Labour returns to opposition. Indeed, you could say that 2014 — when the nation turns with relief to Labour after a brief interval of Tory government, much as it used to welcome back the Tories after brief Labour intervals — could mark the ultimate triumph of the Blairite project: to make Labour the ‘natural’ governing party.

It is possible, but highly unlikely, that Blair himself, still barely 60, would return to lead this victory. More probably, it will be one of his protégés, such as David Miliband.

It won’t be Gordon Brown, we can assume, because the Blairites will never forgive him for the past decade, and the Labour rank-and-file will be disappointed that he turns out to be nothing like as Left as they hope. When he loses the next election (whether or not it’s his fault), he’ll be smartly dumped.

If we accept this construct, as the academics would call it, certain aspects of the reshuffle, previously mysterious, become explicable. Reshuffles are supposed to ‘freshen up’ a government. So why would Blair promote Margaret Beckett, 63, and John Reid, 59? Why do his spin doctors try to convince us that new Education Secretary Alan Johnson, 56, is a rising star?

Why is Patricia Hewitt, 57, left to continue struggling with a disgruntled NHS workforce? Why didn’t Blair give one of these positions to, say, the 40-year-old David Miliband?

The usual explanation for Blair’s reluctance to promote young talent is that most of it is Brownite. Even Miliband, former head of Blair’s policy unit, is reckoned to have half a foot in the other camp.

But let’s try a more generous interpretation. Perhaps Blair is playing the long game. Perhaps Labour’s next generation is being kept out of the limelight so that it is not politically damaged in the final years of this government. It will then have the clout to rebuild Labour in opposition and form a credible government in 2014.

Blair, for all his talk of being bold, is a naturally cautious man. The bravest appointment of his premiership was to send Ruth Kelly, still only 38, to the Department for Education & Skills. She didn’t look the part and, as far as the education world was concerned, she lost the plot almost immediately by failing to abolish A-levels despite an official committee recommendation.

Now Kelly has moved to the less high-profile job of community and local government secretary. But, once regarded as among the brightest of the next generation, she might have suffered irreparable damage at Education. She is an awful warning of the dangers of premature exposure.

As for Miliband, now environment secretary, he has to try and outgreen the Tories. That is a presentational, not an administrative, challenge.

Miliband should be immune from anything comparable to the disasters over school paedophiles, foreign criminals and hospital closures that have afflicted Kelly, Charles Clarke and Hewitt.

He might make a pile of horse’s manure out of the farm payments system, as Beckett did, but nobody will notice except a few straw-chewing farmers in Herefordshire.

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that Blair thought all this out. But, whatever his intentions, I believe this reshuffle will prove a good one for his party’s long-term future.

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