Britain’s Labour Party won a third consecutive majority in Parliament in yesterday’s national elections, for the first time in history. However, as the AP reports, the party’s majority shrank radically, by nearly a hundred seats (down from 161 to 66, out of 646 total seats), and as a consequence PM Tony Blair is definitely a lame duck. In fact, there is rampant speculation that he will be replaced before his term is up, by Treasury chief Gordon Brown, long thought to be Blair’s natural successor.
Labour had run up huge leads in the pre-election opinion polls, and there was never any real doubt that the party would receive a majority and Blair continue as Prime Minister. However, the poll numbers had been tightening in the past few days. In addition, poll figures for the rightward, Conservative Party typically turn out to be lower than are manifested in the general elections, as in the United States.
As a result, political analyst John O’Sullivan predicted the following in an article in yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times (which I surmise to be a reprint of his coverage for the Evening Standard—though I’m sure he did not spell Labour without the u):
“If Labor’s victory looks certain, what generates the excitement? Simple — the possibility that Tony Blair will be struck down by his own party at the moment of victory. Well, perhaps not at the actual moment; but not long afterwards either. It is impossible to exaggerate the hatred and contempt that Labor politicians and activists feel towards Blair.
“Labor candidates go on television and when asked their opinion of Blair, utter sullen remarks such as ‘He is the leader of our party at the moment.’ Some ask to be elected so that they can control Blair or even oust him. And some activists are planning to vote Lib-Dem or even Tory so that Blair will be humiliated by a sharp fall in the majority and be replaced by Brown.”
The Conservative, or Tory, Party leader, Michael Howard, has decided to step down. “As I can’t fight the next election as leader of our party, I believe it is better for me to stand aside sooner rather than later so that the party can choose someone who can,” he told what the Times described as “shocked Tory supporters” in a speech at Roehampton University. Howard is sixty-three years old and would probably be in his late sixties during the next election. He promised to stay on briefly while the party considers possible changes to the rules for choosing a successor.
The Liberal Democrats and some minor parties picked up a few seats, and the Times reports that the conservatives did much better than expected:
“For the Conservatives, it was a far more successful night than many expected: they gained Putney in south-west London, Peterborough, and Ilford North from Labour and took back Newbury from the Liberal Democrats. In Putney, Justine Greening achieved a 6 per cent swing from Labour to regain the seat for the Conservatives.
“Mr Howard said earlier that the result would give the Conservatives a fresh intake of talented MPs with which to build its future, including the party’s first ever black MP, businessman Adam Afriye in Windsor.
“There were some major upsets for Labour. Stephen Twigg, the Schools Minister, lost Enfield Southgate and Melanie Johnson, the Health Minister, also lost her seat. The most painful loss for Labour, however, was probably that of Oona King, who was unseated in Bethnal Green and Bow by the former Labour MP George Galloway, fighting on an anti-war platform for his Respect party.”
The Times noted that the Labour plurality in the popular vote was the smallest ever:
“At 36 per cent, Labour’s share of the vote is the lowest ever received by any party that has won an election—reflecting the increasing success of minor parties and the steady rise of the Lib Dems. The Tories received 33 per cent of the vote and the Lib Dems 23 per cent.”
The results in Britain are indeed good, from a (classical, English Whig) liberal perspective. Those tempted to see the result as an antiwar vote, however, had better think again. The Tories supported the war, and they made their biggest headway not with antiwar talk but instead with “a hard-hitting campaign focused on immigration, violent crime and ‘superbug’ infections in hospitals, contending that all were now out of control,” as the Times of London correctly put it yesterday. A great many Britons truly hate Blair now because they believe he lied to them regularly. Yet George Bush the Younger was reelected despite similar problems. It seems evident that the social issues are what gave the Tories their traction, in addition to the popular dislike of Blair and the common characterization of him as a liar.
In his pre-election article in the Sun-Times, O’Sullivan noted that a personal dislike of Blair on the part of the British public had become overwhelming:
“In the past these hatreds were held in check by Blair’s popularity with Middle England and with the political elite. He was seen, however bitterly, as an electoral asset by those Labor people who thought New Labor was a sellout. But this is true no longer. Blair is deeply distrusted as a result of the widespread view that he deliberately lied to the British people in order to maneuver them into an unjustified and illegal war. That belief is at best an exaggeration and at worst a falsehood. But it moves large numbers of voters, generally on the Left, and senior opinion formers in and out of government.”
As O’Sullivan suggests, Blair had lost a good deal of support among his political base, and his main opposition, the Tories, had finally begun to make some incursions from the right by running as actual rightists instead of watered-down Labourites. This is analogous to the situation in former PM Margaret Thatcher’s last term. As a result, it appears that Big Ben is ticking toward Blair’s imminent political downfall.