Post-Election Britain Tony Blair's Unkept Promise

When they were young and idealistic, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made a pact. Blair would get two turns in office and then step aside for Brown. Now -- in a scene straight out of Shakespeare -- Blair has broken the deal. What will the consequences be?
Von Matthias Matussek

Christiane Amanpour, CNN's reporter goddess, has certainly experienced more grueling evenings, but rarely ones as lonely as tonight. She and her three-man crew are standing on Abingdon Green, south of the British House of Commons. In the background, Big Ben glows silently in the night.

How would she sum up Britain's election? A dull outcome of an even duller election campaign? Labour wins, the Tories come in second and the Liberals third. Exactly as predicted. A weary victory after months of campaign efforts.

"Won is won," says Amanpour. "I like Tony." A small monitor on the lawn shows the sort of world news Amanpour relishes. Skirmishes in Afghanistan. "What exactly am I doing here?" she complains. The streets are quiet.

A British era has come to a silent end this night, an era that began eight years ago in this same spot with dancing in the streets and the honking of car horns. At the time, Tony Blair captured the parliament in a landslide victory, a victory for progress, youth and the future. An old workers' party had reinvented itself and, as New Labour, had regained power after 18 years of Tory administrations. It was Tony Blair who won that election. The word on the street is that this time around it was the party that won -- despite Tony Blair. Three times in a row -- an historic victory for Labour, but the bloom is off the rose. Tony Blair is no longer a winner. Voter turnout was low, with only 25 percent of registered voters going to the polls. The Labour Party won the election thanks to a man most people still view as the soul of the party: Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Indeed, Blair hardly ever let go of right-hand-man Brown throughout the campaign, at least not since it became clear that Brown would be the one to win the election for New Labour.

Of all Labour candidates who are celebrating their victories in gymnasiums in their districts, declaring themselves winners, Brown is probably the only one who also happens to look like a winner.

Brown as Crown Prince

Brown smiles with self-satisfaction, relaxed and at the same time statesmanlike in his pin-striped suit and pink tie, his pleasant wife in tow, almost as if they were already on their way to 10 Downing Street to pick out new wallpaper.

Brown's buoyant mood certainly has something to do with the fact that his most embittered opponent within the party, Alan Milburn, has been lambasted for poor campaign management and announced he will not serve in the new cabinet. At the beginning of the year, Blair had begun touting the ambitious Milburn as his crown prince, partly in an effort to get rid of Brown, his troublesome rival. But Milburn, far too high-handed and aggressive, committed a serious misstep in his campaign against his political opponent by using anti-Semitic posters, triggering public protests.

At the same time, it became increasingly clear during the election that Brown was extremely well-loved by the public. He supplied the party with verifiable successes, with enviable economic growth, lower interest rates and lower unemployment.

He supplied it with credibility and steadfastness. And the fact that smiling was never his strength even turned out to be boon for Brown. British voters are tired of watching a constantly smiling Tony Blair, a man who they believe deceived them about the Iraq war, a man the majority of voters would have liked to have seen voted out of office.

The relationship between Brown and Blair has always been tense. Brown was already involved in the Labour Party in Blair's student days, when he was still considering whether a career as a rock musician would help him meet more women. Brown was the man who did the party's nuts-and-bolts work, while Blair was the charming face of the younger generation.

When Labour Party leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair took the lead, with the party's approval. A woman who was there at the time recalls that "people would automatically congregate in front of Blair's office, not Brown's."

Later, in an almost Shakespearean moment, an ominous meeting between the two men occurred in which they supposedly entered into a pact: Blair was to win the first two elections and then make room for Brown, who in return would accept the role of second fiddle until then.

Just under a year ago, Brown supposedly went to Blair's office to demand that Blair make good on his end of the pact. When Blair refused, Brown supposedly called out: "Whatever you tell me from now on, I won't believe a word of it."

It looks as though Brown won't be asked to believe Blair much longer. But for how long will he be forced to wait? His handwriting will already be evident in the government's address to the nation, which Queen Elizabeth II will present next Tuesday.

Blair won't ride silently away

On the morning before the election, after having visited the queen, Blair raised some of these issues, which are intended to placate the party's traditionalists. They reflect the typical old Labour philosophy of promoting more social justice, and include elements like providing financial assistance for housing purchases, spending more time listening to the man on the street, even when that man is an immigrant, and investing more in public hospitals.

Blair, always an outsider in the old Labour Party, is unlikely to give up his position that easily. He announced the party's new programs like a man who is promising to make sure that they will be carried out to the very last detail, like a true party worker, one who is irreplaceable. He added that Great Britain must finally put the Iraq war behind it and move itself into the future.

No, Tony Blair will not simply ride away from his historic third victory. Few can conjure up the charm of a new beginning like Tony Blair. "We will listen to the people," he tells the press at 10 Downing Street. And then he poses obediently for a family portrait, together with his wife Cherie and their swarm of children.

These are the things he can always build upon. The photo op. His charm. His ease of manner. These things and his political luck.

On the day after the election, commentators were conjecturing that Blair, with his unusually small majority, would have trouble in the House of Commons dealing with Michael Howard, the conservative opposition leader who captured a surprisingly high 33 percent of the vote. But then Howard called a press conference to announce his resignation, saying that it was because he had failed to reach his goal of replacing the Labour prime minister.

Now at least Tony Blair has more time to consolidate his power while the conservatives search for a candidate in the coming months. The prime minister, who certainly relished his role as global political strategist hovering over the rest of the world, will now have his hands full dealing with the arduous daily wrangles known as working with parliament.

It's not the sort of battlefield that will hold CNN's interest very long.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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