09 November, 2005

Ninety days

Today's defeat for the Labour Government is an event of seismic significance.

Tony Blair has never lost a vote before - that's a staggering eight and a half years in power without being beaten in the Commons, a record for any British Prime Minister in at least the last 100 years. It's worth remembering how often the incumbent PM loses votes in this country. John Major, operating for the most part with a Commons majority of 21, lost votes on a weekly basis - not particularly surprising. But Margaret Thatcher before him, even with a majority of over one hundred, tripped up a fair few times, not as regularly as her successor but enough to serve as a reflection of just how polarized and turbulent politics was throughout the 1980s. Indeed, the further you go back the more you find the Commons regularly slapping down the elected Government of the day. Even during the Second World War, when there was a supposed National Coalition Government, Churchill (and more often his hapless predecessor Neville "Peace In Our Time" Chamberlain) fell foul to unexpected groundswells of opposition.

So it's in this context that Tony Blair first turned history on its head by so adroitly marshalling his battery of docile MPs to obey his every whim and word to avoid any defeat for almost a decade, but has now pushed his party that one bit too far. It was long anticipated, often expected, rarely believed but hugely overdue. Whenever you turn an issue of procedure into one of personal authority, more people will recoil simply because it's no longer procedure and all about personality. In this instance it was even more vital given the nature of the issue under vote - proposing to hold people without sentence for ninety days, summarily junking 500 years of English history - and the PM's demented fallback of repeatedly insisting that since it was what the police had asked for, it was therefore right. The implication being that if the army suddenly asked for the shutting down of certain newspapers or organizations, it would also therefore be right, and so on.

Who'd have thought Michael Howard would ever sound more sane, rational and worthy of respect than the leader of the Labour Party? These are fascinating, febrile times, and Tony Blair - as with Thatcher before him - is contriving to erode and decay his chance of remaining in office with increasingly manic aplomb. If there's one useful thing he's taught his party, it's how to survive in office - and hence this time next year he'll be gone.


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