Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Britain's leadership crisis

There’s been some really interesting revelations today about the Tony Blair – Gordon Brown succession here in the UK. Brown, who joined forces with Blair in the 1990’s to develop the “new Labour” movement (paralleling Bill Clinton’s “new Democrats” in the US), is the logical successor to Blair because he has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout Blair’s tenure. There have also been reports that, when Blair and Brown sat down to develop their new Labour strategy, they agreed that Blair would be the public face of the movement at first, but would eventually step aside and let Brown take over. That stepping aside, according to these reports, is now long overdue.

But Blair and Brown have never actually gotten along so well, and there has been tension brewing between the two for many years. This has made the handover particularly awkward, as Blair seems to be holding out to see if anyone will challenge Brown.

The gathering storm on the horizon, of course, is David Cameron, the charismatic leader of the “new Tories” who is hard at work rebranding the conservative party as environmentally friendly and concerned about social welfare. The young, energetic and magnetic Cameron is a sharp contrast from the aging, dour and cranky Gordon Brown. Eventually, Brown will have to call an election (although he gets to choose when this will occur) and at that time Cameron will be ready for attack. It’s anybody’s guess what will happen then, but if Brown wants to defeat him he’s going to have to work pretty hard after becoming PM. People generally don’t like him too much here.

It is for this reason that so many Labour MPs, while loath to actually go against Brown for fear of retaliation after he becomes PM, have been desperate working behind the scenes to convince someone else to mount a challenge to him. The most speculated name is David Milliband, Blair’s environment secretary. He is young, attractive, generally well-liked and firmly in line with Tony Blair’s vision for the future.

Milliband has repeatedly insisted he will not run. But in a sign of growing hostility between the Blair and Brown camps, this weekend Blair’s senior aids let it be known in a series of interviews that Blair is gunning for Milliband to challenge Brown, saying that if he ran Milliband would, “probably win.” Blair, of course, has declined to say who he will endorse for the succession. But for him to not endorse Brown would be a tremendous act of betrayal.

The Labour nervousness over Brown’s leadership is understandable, however. He seems to rule through fear and intimidation rather than through general good will. Brown was described as 'Stalinist' last week by the former Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull. Not exactly a glowing recommendation.

For myself, I’m not sure what I want to happen. Since I can’t vote here it’s sort of a non-issue, but I’m still watching it with great interest. On one hand it is undeniable that there is an unprecedented level of public distrust of the government here at the moment because of the Iraq War. This leads me to believe that any new government that seems like an extension of the old one would not only be unhealthy for the nation’s psyche but also unlikely to win against a fresh face like Cameron. People here are generally not inclined to want to vote for conservatives, who seem to many to be stodgy and uncompromising relics of the past. However their disgust for the war and the perceived dishonesty of Blair (especially with regard to the cash-for-honours scandal) could make them vote for a party they don’t entirely believe in just to get new leadership in place. If this is the case, then both Brown and Milliband would be bad choices. Whether or not they actually have the same policy goals (they don’t), Brown is closely linked with Blair and is seen as a continuation of the current government. And Milliband, although he is a fresh face, would in actuality be more of a continuation of the current government than Brown, in all likelihood.

It’s interesting to watch, because it would pan out very similar to the demise of the new Democrats in the US. You have a leader that has presided over economic boom times and general wealth and prosperity, but questions over his integrity and honesty could drive a thirst for something new, even if people don’t know what they’re really bargaining for. After all, Cameron could just be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, dressing up old Tory ideas with new words and promises, but in actuality representing the kind of inflexibility that could turn the clock back on Britain’s steady economic ascendancy.

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