Last week didn’t go too badly for Tony Blair. He was able to persuade the House of Commons to approve legislation introducing identity cards and prohibiting the “glorification of terrorism”.
But the fact that these parliamentary successes count as significant political victories is an indication of how weak Blair is. A prime minister who has to be congratulated for winning votes in a House of Commons where he supposedly has a majority is one whose days in power are numbered.
In a sense, of course, we all know this. Blair has said that he is going before the next general election. But how quickly he goes and in what circumstances will help shape British politics.
This brings us to the question of Gordon Brown. The Observer the weekend before last carried an interview with the home secretary, Charles Clarke, where he confirmed that “Blair and Brown were now effectively running a dual premiership”.
Brian Walden pointed out on Radio Four last Sunday that this has been true since New Labour took office in May 1997. But the balance of power in this relationship is changing. As Andrew Rawnsley, an Observer columnist close to 10 Downing Street, acknowledged, “the prime minister’s authority is leeching away”.
So Brown is asserting himself more as premier-in-waiting, though apparently without any formal agreement with Blair about when he will succeed. Indeed, the widely trumpeted “understanding” between Blair and Brown doesn’t mean that all is now sweetness and light between them.
To quote Rawnsley again, “Scratch that surface [cooperation] and you find seething resentment and distrust. One close observer of the relationship calls it ‘as mad as ever’.” Blair shows no signs of wanting to fade away soon.
Brown’s recent clumsy and authoritarian interventions on security and Britishness give an indication of how deeply he is committed to the New Labour project, despite his vendetta with Blair.
Another Blairite columnist, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday, says that when Brown thought he was going to take over from Blair in autumn 2004, “a programme was drawn up that was so right wing that it would ‘out-Blair Blair’, according to one of those who was consulted”.
Which brings us to the biggest problem facing the “dual premiership”. One party to this dysfunctional relationship – Blair – is on the way out. But the other – Brown – is sinking too.
The Liberal Democrat victory in the Dunfermline by-election can’t just be dismissed as a typical Lib Dem party trick or as having been about the tolls on the Forth Road Bridge. Brown lives in the constituency and ran Labour’s election campaign.
The defeat was a personal humiliation for him. The fact that the Lib Dems won, despite the disarray their leadership has been in, indicates the continuing strength of anti-war opinion.
Brown’s followers will try to justify his right wing stance to Old Labour stalwarts by saying that the challenge from new Tory leader David Cameron means that Labour has to continue rightwards. But Dunfermline shows there are still millions of voters to the left of the mainstream parties.
And things are likely to get more difficult for the dynamic duo. Last Friday the Financial Times pointed out that, “Mr Blair faces formidable problems elsewhere. The ‘second reading’ vote on his schools reform bill remains more perilous than anything he faced this week.
“Ministers believe at least 50 Labour MPs will vote against the bill despite recent concessions. The prime minister must give more ground if he is to win the vote without the humiliation of doing so with a helping hand from the Tories.
“The 4 May local elections pose another challenge. Here Labour’s fear is of a bloodbath in London where Mr Cameron’s popularity could see Labour losing up to 12 boroughs in the capital. A serious setback would trigger new questions about how long Mr Blair can last at Number 10.”
Here is the challenge confronting Respect. We have to ensure that Labour’s lifeblood drains away leftwards. Otherwise millions will find themselves continuing to lack their own political voice.