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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why is Blair still PM?

Despite living in the UK for a few years, I still have difficulty making sense of some of the ins and outs of what goes on here. I do suspect that I now have a slightly better theory - than the one that I had yesterday - to explain why Blair is still PM; that Brown wishes to avoid giving the electorate time to see him for what he is.

{{ Advance warning to the strong supporters of one party or another: I'm not advocating Blair's removal, nor his not being removed, I don't have a strong preference either way. This analysis is merely an attempt to make sense of what is actually happening. The analysis would be the same if the UK had a Conservative government with a PM who was increasingly unpopular, even amongst fellow Conservative MPs who were saying so in public, but who was being allowed to continue serving. }}

For some time it has seemed peculiar to me that sitting Labour MPs have publically voiced opposition to Blair's continuing as PM, but that there has been no attempt to force him out. Instead the talk appears to be along the lines of politely waiting until Blair gets around to stepping down and, perhaps, if it's not too inconvenient, perhaps he could consider doing so sometime soon. This is something of a stereotype of British behaviour, and yet it appears to be exactly how many local pundits are portraying the situation.

I tried thinking this through from the perspective of dissenting MPs. In their situation, my decision tree would be simple:
  • If I were one of a group of like-minded MPs with a plausible contender and the numbers to make it happen, I'd participate in forcing Blair out, through whatever procedural means are available. A further refinement that might be of interest if a resignation and endorsement from the outed leader were seen to be of value in smoothing a transition would be to prepare the procedural means quietly and then offer Blair, at an hour's notice, the opportunity to resign and endorse, rather than be forced out.
  • Alternately, lacking a plausible contender, the numbers or both, I'd quietly bide my time in order to avoid diminishing support for the party as a whole.
Is my surprise an Australian thing? I don't know. Perhaps it is unthinkable for UK Labour MPs to engage in power-plays, or to use their powers as elected representatives without the explicit consent of the wider party machine. This might perhaps suggest a third option:
  • Express public dissent in the hope that, if enough others do it often enough, it'll become a self-fulfilling prophecy, without having to get my hands "dirty" with the exercise of political power.
Although I'm not entirely happy with that third option, that's pretty much where I'd let my thinking settle until earlier today when I read Labour MP Gerald Kaufman's letter to the Guardian in which he provides, unintentionally, a far better explanation. What he actually says is:
If Brown takes over too soon, or in an atmosphere of turmoil, he is in danger of becoming shopworn goods before an election several years away. He needs to be fresh, innovatory, ...
Well, yes, nothing worsens a candidate's appeal more than not having appealing ideas, but Kaufman structures his words to suggest that lack of appeal is an unavoidable consequence of long exposure, in the sense that inventory sitting on a shop's shelf for too long becomes "shopworn". This seems an inappropriate metaphor for ideas which tend to gain more regard over time, not less, except when they are poor ideas, of course. Perhaps Kaufman is unaware of the relevance to appeal of how good an idea actually is? Apparently not, the rest of the quoted paragraph is:
... ready to call an election pretty soon after reaching No 10, and fighting a campaign against a Cameron by then exposed for what he is: as someone once put it about another Tory, "Don't be deceived; beneath his superficial tinsel lies the real tinsel". Such a strategy points to a later Blair departure from Downing Street.
In other words, Kaufman is all too aware of the risk of allowing poor ideas to be exposed to the public for too long, Brown's or Cameron's. Kaufman has unwittingly answered my question for me; those who support's Brown's replacing Blair are keeping their mouths firmly shut until somewhat closer to election time in order to avoid Brown's having time to be "exposed for what he is" (Kaufman's exact words, if not his intent), which also explains Brown's resolute silence in the face of the events of the last few days.

This also allows the occasional public voices of dissent from Labour MPs to be explained as frustrated expressions from those who feel that they have no input in shaping events.

I wonder what UK politics might look like if any of the players actually believed that their ideas were good ones?