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Phoney Tony gets his knuckles rapped

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 27 May 2005

Australian golfer Greg Norman is quoted as saying, “It’s not the victories that count to me. It’s the quality of how you deliver your losses and the quality of how you deliver your victories”. For Tony Blair, whose Labour Party won the May 2005 election in the UK, the quality of the victory was dismal. Granted, Blair won a historic third term and is the only UK prime minister since the war, with Margaret Thatcher, to have triumphed in three successive general elections. But his majority of 161 seats was cut dramatically to 67; less than half of what it was in the landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. More alarming for Blair is that his party now has the lowest share of the vote for a UK ruling party in modern times. Due to the “first past the post” electoral system, Labour holds 55% of the seats in parliament. However, it has only 35% of the share of the vote, with the Conservatives holding 32% and the Liberal Democrats 22%. So, although Blair won the election, the electorate has rapped his knuckles. Blair acknowledges that Iraq was ‘deeply divisive’, and commentators put it and the lack of trust in Blair generally at the core of the slump in the Labour vote. A recent Populus poll found that close to half of the public who claim to have once trusted Blair feel this has now been lost. It is no wonder that taunting names such as B-Liar and Phoney Tony have stuck in the public consciousness.

But will Blair go? No one really knows. There are strong calls for him to hand over to Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, sooner rather than later. Blair insists he will see out his term of office and is already trying to rush legislation through on controversial issues ranging from immigration control to identity cards. Blair is obviously a fighter, but he is also driven by concerns about his own legacy. This is partly what drove him into his fated relationship with George W Bush. I think he rather fancied the idea of waging a Churchillian-style global war and writing his name indelibly into the history books. His ambitions got the better of him.

For Africa, however, there may be a silver lining in Blair’s gradual demise. If I am correct and Blair worries not only about his current reputation but how history will write about him, he will have to do something spectacular before he leaves office to set the record straight. In that regard, he will have his eye keenly on his forthcoming role as chair of the G8. In a perverse way, coupled with growing pressure from campaigns such as Make Poverty History, perhaps he will choose the current context to make a move on African debt relief. Not only will this balance his blunders in Iraq and increase his international standing, at least in his mind, he will also steal the thunder from Brown, who has championed the Africa debt issue. So, as Blair scrambles to save his tarnished image, now is the time for antidebt campaigners to turn up the heat. Who knows, for some of the wrong reasons (and hopefully some right ones too), maybe Blair is ready to agree to sweeping debt relief following the G8 Summit in July. Like Blair’s election, the quality of such a victory may not be entirely satisfying for antidebt campaigners, but this will be of little concern if its impact makes a real difference in Africa.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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