Labour MPs put Blair on notice
Guardian survey reveals discontent
Nicholas Watt and Larry Elliott
Saturday September 27, 2003
Tony Blair is facing widespread dissatisfaction among Labour MPs who are calling on the prime minister to introduce radical changes to his leadership style if he is to avoid a damaging loss of support.
As the prime minister braces himself for several union-inflicted defeats at the conference, which opens in Bournemouth tomorrow, the Guardian found that just under a quarter of MPs surveyed would like Mr Blair to quit Downing Street immediately.
A similar proportion want a peaceful transition either before or after the next election. Only just over a quarter offered unconditional support. There was a widespread recognition that Gordon Brown would succeed Mr Blair.
In one of the largest surveys of backbench opinion since Labour came to power, 108 MPs discussed top-up fees, the Iraq war and Mr Blair's leadership. Despite unease among Labour whips, who encouraged MPs not to talk, the Guardian spoke to a range of MPs who included staunch loyalists, supporters whose patience is wearing thin, and outright dissidents. They included lifelong backbenchers and former ministers, such as Nick Brown, a strong supporter of the chancellor, who was one of the few to speak on the record.
The findings do not indicate an imminent leadership crisis and they certainly do not show that the chancellor's camp is starting to manoeuvre. But the loss of support for Mr Blair shows how much work he has to do to recover trust on his benches. Alan Keen, MP for Feltham and Heston, indicated that many MPs were looking to the future when he said: "Tony Blair has done a great job for the party. There's no doubt about it, Gordon Brown is by far and away above any other candidates for prime minister, if that post becomes available."
The survey came as the Labour leadership embarks on an intensive round of negotiations to minimise dissent at this year's conference, which is likely to be one of the bloodiest since Mr Blair was elected leader in 1994. Leftwingers will attempt to force a full debate and vote on the Iraq war after the big unions, which command 50% of the vote, agreed to concentrate their fire on domestic policies. The leftwingers will tomorrow attempt to persuade the full con ference to include Iraq as one of the four or five contemporary resolutions which are voted on each year. But unions want to focus on controversial domestic policies, such as foundation hospitals, employment rights and pensions.
As he prepares to deliver his 10th speech as leader, in the conference hall where in 1984 Neil Kinnock signalled the rebirth of Labour with his rousing attack on the Militant Tendency, Mr Blair faces questions about his leadership. Exactly half of those surveyed (54 out of 108) would resist any attempt to have him removed, and a further nine would like the prime minister to stay if he mends his ways. However, a significant number (29) say it is time for him to move on.
Ronnie Campbell, the veteran MP for Blyth Valley, received a blunt message when he campaigned in the recent Brent East byelection: "Get rid of that Blair and I'll vote for you."
Mr Campbell added: "He's got a trust problem, because of the war, because of Hutton, and he'll have a hell of a job to turn it round. If he doesn't, then he's on the skids."
Another MP, Ann Cryer, said she would not "look forward to replacing Tony Blair" but admitted he may have to go. "If we are in difficulties still by next spring it does need clearing up and it needs doing well before the next election - if he's happy to go."
Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West and a longstanding critic, said: "Blair in his time as leader has voted to be hooked up to a daily drip-feed of tabloid attention. It's an addiction. He's courageous when he's wrong and timid when he's right. That's his bloody problem."
It's getting dangerously close to Tony Blair being a liability now. If he is a liability, will he put the party first and hand over? It's a very difficult time. We cannot afford to have another year with fundamental differences between the leader and the party. He'd better not be serious when he says that he's not moving on issues such as top-up fees, or he'll be heading for the rocks."
"I have a high regard for [Blair] and although I think he can be a bit wilful at times and at times he has the wrong kind of acolytes around him - I think they are Nuremberg-style yes-men - as far as leadership is concerned, he is the only game in town."
Blair is in trouble, and may be in more trouble after the Hutton report. Having so many backbenchers not happy is not a good sign. Especially if a debate on the war is quashed or limited. This is not going to kill him politically, but it makes for choppy waters ahead. Blair needs WMD to be found and Bush needs Blair to stay in power. The investigation demanded by the CIA of the leak of a name of a deep cover agent by White House officials could lead to an American version of the Hutton inquiry.
What is amazing is the increasing examination of the conduct of the driven by UN refusal to help, and that IS what it is, and the cost. Even a brief look leads to conclusions of crony capitalism and more poor planning.
Labour MP's are trying to deny the reality of the situation, which is that their PM is increasingly unpopular and there may be no floor to that unpopularity. The more that comes out which discredits Bush and Blair, the worse they look. One real disaster and it could be over quickly for Blair.
posted by Steve @ 3:12:00 AM