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Blair and Brown, 2001 to 2010,
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This review is from: The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Hardcover)
This riveting book, by the award-winning journalist Andrew Rawnsley, relates the story of the Labour government from its second election victory in 2001 to the present time. It is based mainly on several thousand interviews, most with named individuals, who have not denied their accuracy.
Tony Blair's unswerving loyalty to Bush led to the decision to join the invasion of Iraq. Rawnsley exposes the subsequent weakness and self-serving nature of many senior politicians, who even though not in favour of the war, allowed Blair to overcome their views. It was not their finest hour. Blair's persuasive ability and skills as an orator could also have positive outcomes. These skills had led to the successful intervention in Kosovo and later peace in Northern Ireland.
Throughout Blair's premiership, Gordon Brown as Chancellor effectively ran a parallel government and frequently undermined Blair, for example blocking Blair's wish to join the euro zone. Rawnsley fully documents this extraordinary situation. Blair's failure to tackle this problem meant that their relationship was to be a persistent poison at the core of New Labour. Another of Blair's weaknesses was his failure to anticipate potentially damaging situations, such as the `cash for honours' scandal that further eroded his reputation for honesty.
By Spring 2004, a depressed Blair considered not standing for a third term. He promised Brown he would step aside in the autumn. This promise, like earlier ones, was not kept, provoking more outrages by the Chancellor. The third term was marked by additional authoritarian legislation and continuing support for Bush. Both led to major misjudgments, such as the attempt to pass a law allowing a 90-day detention without trial for terrorist suspects. The tipping point that ensured that Blair would not serve a full third term was his steadfast refusal to condemn the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
After 13 yrs waiting, Brown eventually became premier, just as the economic situation started to unravel, making a mockery of his often-repeated boast that he had abolished `boom and bust'. Bizarrely, Brown's popularity rose sharply during the Northern Rock crisis and tempted him to call a snap election in the autumn of 2007. In the event, he bottled out in circumstances that led to him being ridiculed for indecision. Things steadily went from bad to worse, culminating in the catastrophic mismanagement of a new 10p tax rate, for which Labour was severely punished at the polls.
Brown's lack of a strategic plan, as predicted by Blair, and his insistence on micro-managing everything, led to one calamity after another and deep disillusionment in the ranks of Labour MPs. In the summer of 2008 a plot was hatched to remove him, but the plotters were even more inept than the leadership and it was easily snuffed out. A turn in his fortunes came with the great banking crash. Brown threw aside practically all his cherished beliefs about fiscal prudence and led the world's leaders to take bold action to prevent a global financial collapse. His rating in the polls again rose.
But it did not last long. Soon he was mired by a proposed personal smear campaign directed against leading Tories and masterminded by his odious spin doctor Damian McBride. This was followed by the tidal wave of scandal about MPs expenses. Before long even cabinet ministers were resigning, but again self-interest and a lack of planning meant that Brown scrapped through to survive another day. The book ends with Brown again defending himself from attacks, this time over under-resourcing the army in Afghanistan, and staggering wounded towards a fast-approaching election day.
New Labour was a superb machine for winning elections. But it failed to fully exploit substantial majorities in three elections and ten years of unbroken economic growth, to make major lasting improvements in public services. On the rare occasions that they worked in harmony, Brown's technical skills combined with Blair's advocacy were a formidable combination and one cannot help wondering what could have been achieved had so much energy not been squandered in the pointless friction documented in this book. There would have been less style, but surely more substance. It remains to be seen whether the voters will give New Labour another chance.
Rawnsley's book is a superb piece of contemporary history, with the ring of authenticity. It gives the reader a real insight into how the governments of this period actually worked and at every stage there are detailed descriptions, derived from numerous interviews, of the thoughts and actions of the players involved. It is a long read, but absorbing throughout.