Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Honeymoon over, marriage shaky, but no sign of divorce


This is the 200th post on this blog, and what better time than now to take one's own government on, head-on?

Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in office for eight and a half years now, two years longer than his predecessor, John Major, and approximately equal to the number of years Churchill held the position. That he is a smart politicial operator is not in question; equally, he has undeniable presence as a leader. Despite his lies, dissembling, manoeuvring, cheating, bullying and preaching, it is difficult to avoid being impressed when he speaks.

We've had several examples in the past few years of the press trying to find 'Labour's Poll Tax', the issue that will sink the party towards the seabed of electoral oblivion unless it changes: the council tax re-evaluation (now kicked safely into touch - except in Wales where they'll all vote Labour anyway), inheritance tax (unlikely to rear its head too far above the parapet, and again only of concern in London and South-East seats where property prices are still insane - but they won't vote Labour anyway), pensions (an unsexy subject for the public to get worked up about, and most voters aren't that close to retirement), ID cards (fingers crossed on that one, eh?). But it could be that the issue that damages Blair permanently is the one currently going through the House of Commons: the Terrorism Bill.

Let's remind ourselves where we are: the government wants to hold terrorism suspects for up to 90 days without charge, a massive increase on the current maximum of 14 days. The Parliamentary Labour Party considers anything over 28 days to be wildly excessive. The Tories are also backing 28 days as a maximum (though I suspect this has more to do with political expediency than with conviction - if they were in government right now, what do you think they would propose?) Blair is preparing for a showdown with his own backbenchers on this very subject. The promised compromise has been withdrawn.

Blair's been extremely clever here. He has the backing of the police, a point he continually refers to when justifying his stance (who's deciding Home Office policy, here, the police or the government? If we gave the police all the powers they wanted, our overcrowded prisons would be unable to cope with the influx). He has the backing of 72% of the public, according to a heavily loaded YouGov poll (PDF) (which leads up to the Big Question with statements such as: "The police want to extend this time to 90 days, because it can take up to three months to analyse material such as computer files in order to obtain the evidence needed to charge suspects"). He's presented a golden opportunity to the PLP: the Tories are against us, but the police and the Great British Public are with us - surely you wouldn't split the party over this? So, once again, Labour backbenchers will be asked to put their consciences aside (those who still have one) and vote this excessive legislation through.

And, if this doesn't work, some Tories (eg Widdecombe*) have indicated they will vote for 90 days, so Blair is likely to get his bill through even in the face of a strong rebellion**. Luckily we still have the Lords to come, and they will be a much tougher challenge. Expect the bill to be debated on a Friday afternoon...

As for the long term, it is very, very, very hard to imagine Blair resigning - so one assumes that the party will eventually have to 'do a Thatcher' on him, and throw him off the sinking ship. At present, even with his strong grip on the party weakening, it's difficult to imagine such a coup d'étât occurring. There's not much coming up that could mortally wound him - I'm still hoping ID cards will do it. The best way to lose public support is to hurt people's wallets, and that £90 for a passport could be just the ticket.

More likely, however, is that Brown will have to raise some headline-grabbing tax to fund the increasing black hole in public finances, and that he will be the one terminally injured in the process.

On and on and on...

[POSTSCRIPT: On the good news front, the Tribune Group has reformed.]

* She didn't.
** I was wrong - tee hee...


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