Was it just a tactic to deal with the pressure of the moment
Cast your mind back to the events leading up to to Tony Blair’s dramatic announcement on September 30th 2004 that he would serve a full third term but would stand aside before the next election.
For what Blair said in that short statement on the eve of him going into hospital totally dominates the current political environment.
But was his commitment to step aside before the end of his third term for real or was it a short-term tactic to deal with the mounting pressure in that difficult week?
And if it wasn’t for real what does that mean now? Is Tony trying to find a mechanism to go back on his undertaking so he can lead Labour into a fourth General Election?
On the final Sunday in September 2004 delegates were gathering in Brighton for the party conference, with the issue of Iraq, the failure to find WMDs and Tony Blair’s leadership the dominant issues.
Pressed by David Frost in a BBC interview Blair emphatically rejected any suggestion he had ever considered quitting, or ever done any deals with Mr Brown, or was thinking about standing down. In characteristic style he said: “I am restless to do more and to do better. There is a massive amount still to do and I want to do it”.
That morning there had been a devastating Populus poll in the New of the World which put Labour on just 28% behind the Lib Dems on 29% with the Tories on 32%.
A couple of days later Gordon Brown’s conference speech received rave reviews reinforcing the speculation that the only way that Labour could hold on would be with a change of leader.
All the time Blair knew that shortly he would have to go into hospital for a procedure on his heart and he could easily have foreseen the headlines.
His statement was timed to perfection – just an hour or so before polls closed in the Hartlepool by-election where the Lib Dems were giving Labour a run for their money. If Labour had lost the result would have been partly over-shadowed by the Prime Minister’s news.
Interestingly Gordon Brown was on a flight to Washington and had not been told.
Looking back the declaration deflated the Iraq issue – certainly within the party. The next Populus poll saw Labour back at 35% with the Tories on 28% and the Lib Dems on 25%. Blair’s personal ratings were at their highest since the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war.
So if Blair did not mean it could he possibly get out of his commitment? It is hard to see how he could. There would have to be a plausible reason – a particular issue, say, that only he was able to deal with that was of such importance to the nation and Labour that he was deferring his premature retirement.
Remember – nobody ever got rich betting against Tony Blair. You can get 13/2 on Blair outlasting Mrs. Thatcher with William Hill. Might be worth a small punt – the cash for peerages investigation notwithstanding.