Blair’s announcement that he will seek and, if elected, serve a full third term but not a fourth one must go down as one of the most extraordinary declarations of an incumbent leader about his or her future in the job. Blair has told us how long we can expect him to be around for assuming the electorate, his party, his family and his health let him.
I’m guessing his intention was to end speculation about when/if he’ll hand over to Gordon Brown, and to prevent it being an issue during the forthcoming election campaign. He may also have done it to spike Gordon’s chances of being PM. However it seems to me that this may well turn out to be a turning point in British politics which could have quite unexpected consequences. I say this for several reasons.
Firstly, Blair has ensured that Labour’s historic third term in government, should they get it, will involve a struggle for the succession, starting openly probably no later than mid term. From day one, ministers’ pronouncements and activities will be scrutinised by both media and opposition for any hints at ambition for the PM’s job or support or otherwise for those considered to be in the race. As we saw with both Thatcher and Major, such jockeying for position can do a lot to undermine a sitting government.
Secondly, Blair has given anyone within the government who is in a position to oppose a policy an ideal means of doing so — delay it until the PM resigns. The policy’s future thereafter will be uncertain and making political alliances for the succession could then kill it.
Thirdly, this will give the opposition parties a reason to do everything they can to delay government bills and provide opportunities for them to exploit the tensions within the government and the Labour party for their own advantage or at least the government’s disadvantage.
Fourthly, in foreign policy, anyone who doesn’t like Blair can simply hold on for someone new. Blair’s ability to push forward his own policies in e.g. the EU will thus be considerably weakened — the EU leaders will know he’ll stand down by a certain point and can adopt delaying tactics on policies they dislike and policies that Tony likes.
Whilst Blair’s announcement may help to keep Labour disciplined in the run up to the next election, ISTM he has considerably weakened his ability to govern thereafter with this announcement, both on domestic policy and on the international stage. He has also made it more difficult for Gordon Brown to ensure that he’s the one to succeed Blair, whilst making it more likely that the struggle for the succession will see a level of infighting in the Labour party not seen since the 1980s.
At any rate, the PM’s annoucement has ensured that what happens in the post-Blair era is likely to be a dominant theme of Britain’s political discourse after the next election, as both the government, the media and the political parties gradually take on board the reality that Blair’s days have now been numbered by none other than Blair himself.