uk politics

Booting Out Blairism

More encouraging signs that the departure of Blair signals the end of Blairism - the new Health Secretary Alan Johnson has started applying the brakes to the NHS reform juggernaut beloved of our late Dear Leader.

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons he accepted the government had not managed to keep the medical profession "on board" during its reform programme.

Well, that's putting it mildly.  I'm of the opinion that the NHS reforms are designed around the Thatcherite aims of privatisation and marginalising the medical professions, so it'll be interesting to see if appointing an actual medic to assess the current state of the service is a real Blair-bashing exercise (this is implied by the emphasis "less on central direction and more on patient control") or a symbolic sop to a highly hostile section of the public sector, to keep them quiet for a bit.  Certainly, initial reaction is that it's not a review that's needed, but a screeching stop to the damaging policies of reform inherited from Blair and another year of them while the review is carried out isn't going to cut it.

Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: "It is disappointing that the government feels it needs to undertake a review when the problems of the NHS have been apparent to the BMA, and others, for many months."

Still, the faint breath of fresh air apparent since Blair's departure is detectable again - with Patricia Hewitt gone too the politlcal damage of admitting that things in the NHS aren't wholly wonderful isn't so great. Courage has never been a great New Labour virtue, but fortunately it doesn't need courage to blame the last guy.

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright?


Frightened yet?

The terror of 7/7 was awful enough, but now al-Qa'ida has imported the tactics of Baghdad and Bali to the streets of the UK. And it will get worse before it gets better ... There is growing suspicion that al-Qa'ida operatives ­ possibly British- born ­ have returned from Iraq as well as Afghanistan to guide, direct and influence groups here."

Quarsan picked up on this quote by that extremist Murdoch-shilling taking dickhead of an ex-plod earlier, but it needs expanding on.  This is the new Prime Minister's future advisor on international security matters, telling us that the complete, utter, rank amateurish, balderdash of profoundly non-terrifying non-car bombs that the press and broadcast media have been having collective fear-wanks over for the last five days are worse than 7/7, an attack run on coldly professional lines by men who knew what they were doing, killed 52 people and injured many others, physically and mentally.  Now I reckon that's an insult to my intelligence, to my fellow Londoners and, I suggest, to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught up in 7/7.  It beggars belief that this man is listened to by anyone with an ounce more sense than a jam sandwich.  Oh, and I switched on my radio this morning to hear Tony McNulty in the same job sounding exactly as dull, stupid and unpleasant as he did when John Reid was in the hotseat.  Plus ca change.

I was in a pleasant poolside bar in Greece when the new Cabinet was announced, and was enjoying myself ('Bye, Doctor Reid!  Bye, Marge!') right up until I heard about Lord Stevens' appointment.  This is a man who, let us not forget, was appointed by the football authorities to investigate corruption in the game and dutifully found it was clean as a whistle.  What do we think will happen when he's appointed by New Labour to investigate whether, say, the Iraq War has led to an increase in the terrorist threat?  Perhaps he can invite Lord Hutton and Lord 'What's He Doing In The Lib-Dems?' Carlile along to help out with buckets of whitewash (supplied by Halliburton, naturally).  Mind you, I still think appointing Ruth Kelly to Transport is someone's idea of a sick joke, so perhaps the Stevens appointment (and that of the unacceptable fat of capitalism Sir Pigby Jones) should be seen similarly.

Actually, reading round the blogs to get some bleedin sanity back into the picture, Juan Cole points out that the known arrests are of medics from the Middle East, specifically Jordan and Iraq (I'm assuming that the people responsible are about as good at evading the polizei as they are at bomb-making here).  This points to another rather ironic bit of New Labour idiocy - the import of foreign doctors into the NHS to meet targets, followed by the MTAS junior doctor job debacle where there were more doctors than jobs.  If the quality of the medical care by the gentlemen arrested is anything like their apparent bomb-making ability, I'd run a mile screaming from any hospital unlucky enough to employ them.  Go in to see them with an infection and they'd probably prescribe antibiotics, but be unable to work out how to get the drugs into you ('perhaps you could just, like, sit next to them and wait?').  So much for record NHS investment and making the NHS a top priority.  We should send them back where they came from.  What do you mean, it's a blood-stained hell hole of our creation?

However, that's not the most amusing part - that must go to our old friend 'al-Qaeda General' Dhiren Barot, the numpties' numpty, the king of the jihadi muppet wing, who spent an inordinate amount of time devising unworkable plots, which were then obligingly published by the Met to show what a cold, calculating killer they'd caught, and seem to have been taken as such by other numpties.  With the Met on the case vectoring the PDFs, you don't even need to actually stage an attack to have influence.  We all knew Barot was a stupid, ignorant fantasist with an inflated opinion of himself and no apparent sense of irony, but then we read SpyBlog and others and form our own opinions based on the facts.  Perhaps it's a good thing wannabe jihadis watch Die Hard and read the News of the World and believe what they're told by the Met, then.  Much safer than actually working out how to build real bombs.

UPDATE - More from septicisle covering much the same ground rather better.

The New Boss


So at last the interminable interregnum is over, bar the send-off for Tony Blair on Wednesday. Gordon Brown is now leader of the Labour party and will be Prime Minister in a couple of days. Harriet Harman has narrowly won the contest for Deputy Party Leader and will be Party Chairman but, interestingly, not Deputy Prime Minister. Plenty of people are now speculating what the new cabinet will look like. Hopefully we will be treated to a purge of remaining ultra-Blairites from any position where they can do further damage.

After preventing Britain from acquiring the human rights enjoyed by the rest of Europe in the EU summit, Blair has one final insult for us. He might be leaving Downing Street, but he's hanging on to Chequers. He's "homeless" apparently. While he's earning rent from his four million pound London home, we are expected to house him at the Prime Minister's country residence (I guess residences of Cliff Richard, Robin Gibb and Prince Girolamo Strozzi were otherwise engaged now that Blair's no longer the Prime Minister). This is either Gordon Brown demonstrating his magnanimity after revelations emerged of Blair's plans to sack Gordon after the last election, or he's just succumbing to pressure from the Blair's who can't let go.

It's still too early to say if Brown's premiership will be substantially different from Blair's but I think the honeymoon period Labour is currently enjoying will be brief unless Brown makes some impressive changes. I'm yet to be convinced there will be any significant change in direction. Just look at the similarities in Blair and Brown's rhetoric at the start of their tenures:

Tony Blair 1997

"We wish to change politics itself, to bridge the gap between governed and government and to try to address the deep seated and damaging disaffection with politics which has grown up in recent years." - 14 May, Speech to Charter 88

"It will be a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country." - 2 May, Blair's first speech in Downing Street


Gordon Brown 2007

"One of my first acts as Prime Minister would be to restore power to Parliament, in order to rebuild trust in the British people in our democracy. Government must be more open and accountable to Parliament."


"To build trust in our democracy, I'm sure we need a more open form of dialogue with citizens and politicians to genuinely talk about problems and solutions. "It is about a different type of politics, a more open and honest dialogue," he said.


However, there do seem to be some welcome signs of encouraging developments. Gordon Brown has announced an intention to reverse Tony Blair's ban on demonstrating without permission outside Parliament which has been so ridiculed by the Mass Lone Demonstrations. There is also mounting pressure to hold inquiries into the Iraq war and the July 7 London Bombings. And the long-overdue departure of Lord Goldsmith might mean a shake-up of the role for any future attorney general in the light of his advice on the legality of the Iraq war, the conflict of interest in the cash for honours scandal and the decision to halt the SFO investigation into BAE. Addressing those issues will go some way to restoring a little faith in British politics but they are very small steps. We are also hearing rumours of an early General Election. This new commitment to democracy glosses over the highly undemocratic way Brown won the leadership. I also wonder if Labour can afford to fight an early General Election with the party being so in debt, but Brown may well realise that an early election while he is still riding high on the unpopularity of Blair is his best shot.

On the other hand, New Labour 'reforms' in public services will continue, as will the British presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Brown still seems committed to the idea of imposing ID cards on us. There may be a slight cooling of the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Bush administration but I doubt it will be enough to make much of a difference to either Britain or America although how Gordon performs on the international stage will be interesting to watch. The good thing is that Blair is so unpopular and discredited that it can only help Brown to distance himself as much as possible from him, and the party will probably follow. Unfortunately he's probably unwilling and unable to be radically different, but I think it would be very difficult for him to be even worse than Blair if that's any consolation.

Britain Rejoice!


You will all be pleased to hear that Tony has been successful in his quest to deny you fundamental rights enjoyed by the rest of Europe.

“For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in the charter creates justifiable rights applicable to the UK except in so far as the UK has provided for such rights in its national law.”

I'm sure you will also appreciate the Brownies unsubtle bit of spin: Go back and stand up to the French, Brown orders Blair

The real scandal is that, once again, the agreement was reached by all-night negotiations, of flunkies running up and down corridors and countless phone calls between delegations and capitals. Eventually, when all were too exhausted to continue, agreement was reached. One that is a fudge, a bodge, a last minute panic and can be interpreted in different ways, depending on your audience.

This is no way to run a continent.

The reason the EU is in such a mess is not primarily because of greedy MEP's, incompetent bureaucrats or the like; it's in  a mess because the Presidents and Premiers of the EU states can only agree anything after a huge panic every time they hold a treaty. Every single time. It's a farce, but one that affects 600 million people.

Whatever you think of the treaty, or any summit agreement, the obvious truth is that by failing to act in a rational, efficient and considerate manner, they are treating every European citizen with contempt.

The EU Treaty Opt-Out - Why Tony Needs It


The Independent lists some of the rights that Tony is desperate not to afford us. These include:
No one should be subject to torture
No one can be removed to a state where there is a serious risk of torture - I think we can work out why Tony is soft on torture, soft on the causes of torture. Oh Tony, how you've changed the political landscape. I remember the good old days when being against torture was uncontroversial.

Trafficking in human beings is prohibited.
It is beyond shameful that the UK is refusing to ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. In the good old days, slavery was considered to be a terrible wrong. Thanks to Tony this is no longer the case.

Cash for Honours - How Blair Thought He Could Get Away With It


It has come to light that the Honours Committee is stunned by the reaction to Rushdie's gong and the though of any political ramifications to this never entered their pretty little heads. Given that the condemnation and increase in tension was entirely predictable, it's clear that Blair thought he could fly pretty much anyone past the honours committee's. His resignation list is going to be interesting reading.

The award is untimely and counterproductive. How are we supposed to build bridges with the Islamic world whilst we honour those that insult their prophet? The fact that nobody, in the committee, number 10 or the foreign Office flagged this up as having potential consequences is alarming. Equally alarming is the Pakistani Minister who say this justifies suicide bombing... and this from an ally in the crusade against terror? Another sign that all is not well.

In the meantime, it was time for New Lab to say goodbye to their bagman, Lord Levy. Funnily enough Gordon suddenly found he has another pressing engagement elsewhere. however, the fag ends of Blair's fan club turned out, Beckett, Hoon, Blunkett, Lord Bragg, Jonathan Powell and even the weaselly Peter Hain, who sneaked out of the event as soon as he could. The other deputy leadership had the good sense to stay well away.

Smoking Ban - Hard Cases Make Bad Law


Overheard at Chiswick Railway Station:

Owing to new Government Legislation, on 1st July this station will become smoke-free

Chiswick station is *unmanned* 95% of the time, and has no buildings other than the booking office, open only during the short time there is someone there. The rest of the time it's as open to the elements as the bus stop next to it. Presumably it's illegal to smoke there, too, as occasionally a bus turns up and it becomes a place of work. Why do I suspect that this legislation was badly written?

Gordon Brown's "New Kind of Politics"


As if we needed it, today's Guardian provides confirmation that pressure by Brownites was put on MPs to wreck any chance of a leadership contest.

Brownite pressure on the 21 MPs who voted for Michael Meacher scuppered John McDonnell's chances of getting onto the ballot paper for the leadership contest, Guardian Unlimited has learned.

For all his official statements that Gordon Brown would welcome a contest, his campaign team worked overtime to dissuade potential supporters of McDonnell from backing the leftwing challenger.

In the 24 hours after the two leftwing rivals agreed to combine their support to stand against the chancellor, the Brownites managed to deter 14 of Mr Meacher's supporters from backing Mr McDonnell.

This makes a complete mockery of the statements Gordon Brown made after John McDonnell conceded defeat.

Asked whether he would have welcomed a contest, Mr Brown said: "At the end of the day it may be embarrassing, perhaps, to have so much support, but... I think you have got to accept that as the verdict of the parliamentary party."

As long ago as September last year Brown was saying how much he would welcome a contest for the leadership of the party. And yet for the last month he had been going out of his way to prevent one. Brown hasn't even taken over yet as Labour leader and Prime Minister and already we can see the same deceit as we saw under Blair. With no sense of irony, Brown continued with his theme of building "trust in our democracy".

"To build trust in our democracy, I'm sure we need a more open form of dialogue with citizens and politicians to genuinely talk about problems and solutions.

"It is about a different type of politics, a more open and honest dialogue," he said.

Yeah, right! And what of Brown's commitment to open government? Here's a clue.

Hookers, spies, cases full of dollars - Full Story



15 May 2007


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Hookers, spies, cases full of BP spent £45m to win 'Wild East' oil rights

BP executives working for Lord Browne spent millions of pounds on champagne-fuelled sex parties to help secure lucrative international oil contracts.

The company also worked with MI6 to help bring about changes in foreign governments, according to an astonishing account of life inside the oil giant.

Les Abrahams, who led BP's successful bid for a multi-million-pound deal with one of the former Soviet republics, today claims that Browne - who was forced to resign as chief executive last month after the collapse of legal proceedings against The Mail on Sunday - presided over an "anything goes" regime of sexual licence, spying and financial sweeteners.

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He also claims that Home Secretary John Reid was arrested at gunpoint on a BP-funded foreign trip for being out on the streets after a military curfew had been imposed.

Mr Abrahams tells how he spent £45 million in expenses over just four months of negotiations with Azerbaijan's state oil company.

Armed with a no-limit company credit card, he ordered supplies of champagne and caviar to be flown on company jets into the boomtown capital, Baku, to be consumed at the "sex parties".

The hospitality continued in London, where prostitutes were hired on the BP credit card to entertain visiting Azerbaijanis.

Mr Abrahams, an engineer by training, joined BP in 1991, just as the disintegration of the Soviet Union had triggered a "new gold rush" by oil multi-nationals seeking a share of the 200 billion barrels of oil reserves beneath the Caspian Sea.

While employed by BP, Mr Abrahams says he was persuaded to work for MI6 by John Scarlett, now head of the service but then its head of station in Moscow.

He says he was passing information to Scarlett in faxes and at one-to-one meetings in the Russian capital.

He also claims that BP was working closely with MI6 at the highest levels to help it to win business in the region and influence the political complexion of governments.

Mr Abrahams worked for BP's XFI unit - Exploring Frontiers International - which specialises in opening new markets in often unstable parts of the world.

He said Lord Browne, then BP's head of exploration, allocated a budget of £45 million to cover the first year's costs of the Baku operation.

"The order came from Browne's aides to 'get them anything they want'.

"By 'them', they meant local officials in Azerbaijan," Mr Abrahams said.

"There were 20 or 30 people working on it at BP head office, and we soon had a steady stream of executives coming over as negotiators. We got through the money in just four months - after which it was simply increased without question."

He described a Wild West world in which oil executives with briefcases full of dollars rubbed shoulders with mafia members, prostitutes and fixers and cut their deals in smoke-filled back rooms.

"The BP officials would come out to Baku in groups of five or six, every week," he said.

"Sometimes I would charter an entire Boeing 757 to carry as few as seven staff. Their main base was the hard currency bar of the old Intourist hotel - so named because it accepted only dollars and was only open to foreigners.

"It was full of prostitutes and many of us, including me, used them on a regular basis, although we quickly established they all worked for the KGB.

"If we went back to the rooms, not only were they bugged, but the girls would quiz us closely about what we were doing and where we were going, and reported straight back to their handlers.

"Everywhere was bugged, and all the phones were tapped. One of our executives was recorded saying unflattering things about the president, and his comments were played back to us in a meeting with local state oil company officials.

"We were then told clearly that he was no longer welcome in the country."

Mr Abrahams helped to forge links with the local officials by throwing lavish parties. He said the Azerbaijani girls who worked in the BP office, which occupied a floor of the Sovietskaya hotel, would attend the parties and routinely provide "sexual favours".

They were also presumed to work for the local intelligence services.

"There was one girl, called Natasha, assigned to teach us Russian, but it usually ended up as more that that. She would use the intimate opportunity to ask us questions about what we were up to.

"Caviar and champagne were consumed at the parties, which would start in the bars but inevitably end with the girls in the rooms.

"We had a company American Express card with no name on it which we could use to draw out $10,000 a time to pay for entertaining without ever having to account for it.

"Our local fixer was called 'Zulfie', who would help find girls, drink and occasionally hashish. We always suspected he worked for the KGB, because he was so well connected.

"A lot of the BP men's marriages went wrong. Either they ended up with the local girls, or the wives would find out - often because the girls would ring their home numbers "by accident".

"I don't believe that Browne didn't know everything that was going on. He came out to Baku on five or six occasions."

Mr Abrahams, who left BP in 1994, said his first marriage buckled because of his work in Baku. He has since remarried and lives in West London with his new wife Lana and six-year-old daughter Anastasia. He now works as an adviser to the EU.

He said BP applied the same laissez-faire attitude to hospitality when Azerbaijani officials came to the UK during the negotiations.

"I was given a hotline number which connected to a desk in the Foreign Office. It meant visas could be granted instantly for the Azerbaijanis and collected on arrival at the airport, rather than taking the usual several weeks.

"We had bundles of cash to spend on them when they got here, and could again use the corporate card without restraint.

"We would typically have a dinner at which Lord Browne would be present, then he would go home and we would head off to somewhere like the Gaslight Club in Piccadilly - where girls would dance topless and you would get charged £250 for your drink.

"Our guests would usually want girls to go back with afterwards. Sometimes we could persuade the girls in the clubs, but more often we would just phone up an escort agency.

"We could charge them straight to the BP Amex card. But it sometimes became problematic. One group of Khazak Oil officials stripped their hotel rooms in Aberdeen bare, including the sheets and pillowcases, and they would usually clear out the minibars wherever they were staying."

All the entertaining paid off in September 1992 when BP signed a £300 million deal to exploit the Shah Deniz oilfields.

Mr Abrahams says that a key factor in securing the deal was an £8 million payment BP made that year to SOCAR, the state-owned oil company in Azerbaijan, for the right to use a construction yard on the edge of the Caspian Sea.

"It was effectively a sweetener to help to secure the deal - and it worked," he said.

Among the guests at a dinner and ceremony at Baku's Gulistan Palace to celebrate the Shah Deniz deal were Lord Browne and Baroness Thatcher.

Mr Abrahams says he was told to ensure that everything ran smoothly for the event, including meeting Browne's fastidious requirements.

"I had his favourite brand of water, Hildon, and his preferred foods flown out in advance, and I made sure money was paid for police escorts and to circumvent immigration procedures at the airport for Browne and his entourage.

"That evening, he personally handed me a briefcase containing a cheque for $30 million (£15million), to close the deal.

"He was so keen to wear a particular shirt, which he had left at the airport, that I persuaded the chief of police to close off the roads so his cavalcade could go via the airport to collect it."

In 1993, Mr Abrahams played host to a group of MPs who visited Baku as guests of BP, including Harold Elletson - then a Tory MP but now an adviser to the Liberal Democrats - and Home Secretary John Reid, a Shadow Defence Minister at the time.

"John flew out in the BP Gulfstream jet," he recalls.

"After dinner, we went drinking in the hard currency bar. He was drinking a lot - this was a year before he gave up for good - and I grew worried as it got closer to the time of the curfew imposed because of the tense political situation at the time.

"I said, 'Come on John, we have to get back to the hotel.' But as we left, he was swaying around and being very noisy.

"I urged him not to draw attention to us because we weren't meant to be still on the streets. But then a van load of police armed with Kalashnikovs pulled up and asked us what we were doing.

"He said, 'I am a British politician...' I urged him to be quiet, but then he said to one of the policemen, 'If you don't take that f***ing Kalashnikov out of my face I'm going to stick it up your f***ing a***.'

"With that, we were arrested and shoved at gunpoint into the back of the van.

"It was only after I persuaded the driver to go to the hotel to speak to the intelligence officer there that they released us. John had only about two hours' sleep, then was up at 5.30am to fly to the nearby war zone of Nagorno Karabakh. He was completely hung over."

Some of Mr Abrahams' most intriguing claims surround the alleged co-operation between BP and the British intelligence services to secure a more pro-Western, pro-business regime in the country.

He says the operation, masterminded by Scarlett in Moscow, contributed to the coup in May 1992 which saw President Ayaz Mutalibov toppled by Abulfaz Elchibey, and then to a second change a year later which saw Haydar Aliyev take power.

Just months after Aliyev was installed, BP signed the so-called 'contract of the century', a £5 billion deal which placed BP at the head of an oil exporting consortium.

John Scarlett, says Mr Abrahams, "approached me very subtly and asked me to help to gather information for him.

"Because my daily route to the construction yard passed the supply routes for Nagorno Karabakh, he asked me to report on troop and weapons movements. And BP's deputy representative in Russia seemed very close to the embassy, too.

"BP supported both coups, both through discreet moves and open political support. Our progress on the oil contracts improved considerably after the coups."

Subsequently released Turkish secret service documents claimed BP had discussed an 'arms for oil' deal with the assistance of MI6, under which the company would use intermediaries to supply weapons to Aliyev's supporters in return for the contract.

When the documents emerged in 2000, BP denied supplying arms - although sources admitted its representatives had "discussed the possibility".

A BP spokesman said last night of Mr Abrahams' claims: "There are some facts in his account that are accurate, but we don't recognise most of it. We regard it as fantasy."

A spokeswoman for John Reid said she had no comment and the Foreign Office said of Mr Abrahams' claims: "We neither confirm nor deny anyone's allegations in relation to intelligence matters."

MTAS - Back To The Future

Finally, sense.  MTAS, the doctor's recruitment website that led to chaos and stress in the lives of  junior doctors (including my brother-in-law) is to be scrapped.
Actually, it's merely not going to be turned back on, having had the switch thrown a few weeks back.  It's hard to see what else they could have done in the circumstances.

This is rather overdue and isn't any reason whatsoever to conclude that a post-Blair government is going to be in any way sensible, but the failures of the system are the failures of Blairism.  In particular, inexpert use of technology to centralise and de-professionalise a potentially stroppy part of the workforce, leading to them become very actually stroppy indeed.  Long may it rot.  Next, NPfIT and ID cards, eh?  Damn, there are so many to choose from.

Further bloggage from the estimable NHSBlogDoc.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi


Courtesy of Beau Bo D'Or

Forgive the Latin title but I think that this is the best way to convey the sense of irony I feel when looking back on Tony Blair's decade in office. It means, of course, "Thus passes the glory of the world" but the vernacular doesn't do it justice. There will, no doubt, be plenty of political obituaries being written about Tony Blair and after ten years of his leadership, there are so many aspects of his tenure in office that only some of them can be covered here. This obituary isn't just for Blair but also for the political system he helped to undermine.

As Tony Blair prepares to leave Ten Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister, it is us, as well as him perhaps, who are emerging into the sunlight blinking after such a period of darkness. I fear the euphoria will be short-lived. Anyone who has driven on the Autostrada in the mountainous regions of northern Italy will tell you, you emerge from one tunnel into bright sunlight before almost immediately entering another. Similarly, we are exiting the long tunnel of Blair only to enter what seems almost certain to be the much shorter tunnel of Brown. A tunnel it will be nevertheless, but one where the light at the end of it is visible. After that, the tunnel of Cameron seems likely to follow, and its length at this time is unknown.

Though not perfect, the tunnel analogy does I think illustrate part of the problem we have had with British politics since Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. A pattern seems to be emerging with a strong idealist of one party staying in power for far too long followed by someone to continue their policies who serves a much shorter term until he in turn is replaced by a strong idealist from the opposition who remains in office for far too long. Thatcher claimed Tony Blair and New Labour to be one of her greatest achievements. Certainly she created the climate for Blair, and Blairism can be seen as a continuation of Thatcherism - both 'ideologies' make use of the same economic theories. Blair in turn is taking credit for the reformation of the Conservative party under David Cameron. The two great opposing parties are merging into one homogenised entity where, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter which one takes power and the theatrics in Parliament are just that.

Was it always this way? I don't think so. There used to be much more of a distinction between 'left' and 'right', now the terms are all but meaningless and voters have little to choose from in terms of policy and instead base their selection on personality or looks. This may be described by some as "winning the argument" but we are all the poorer for it as democracy is the loser.

Blair came to power on a wave of optimism. Finally the sleazy, selfish Tories were cast out, and with such a huge majority, Blair had a mandate to bring in some real positive changes. Alas, it wasn't to be. In order to win the election, Blair pledged to stick with Tory spending plans for the first two years. The first promise he broke was the one he made to the Liberal Democrats in order to gain their support which was to seriously look in to the possibility of introducing proportional representation for a more balanced and representative Parliament. In the 1997 election manifesto was a commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform. One look at the size of his majority cast that idea into the long grass.

The first stories of sleaze didn't take long to materialise but Blair (still referred to as 'Bambi' in some newspapers) was able to turn on the charm and convince most people of his 'honesty'. His over-the-top lamentation over the death of "", Diana, didn't raise too many eyebrows back then. It was the obsession with spin that first took the gloss off of New Labour. It was something that made them an effective opposition but was quite unsuitable for a party in government. As Cool Britannia morphed into Rip-off Britain the spin coming from Downing Street was always apparent.

There were some seemingly positive aspects of Blair's time in office at first. The introduction of the minimum wage and a huge injection of cash into the NHS that was, for the most part, swallowed up by wage increases. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved under Labour too and the new power-sharing deal can be called historic, but in Blair's speech there was no mention by name of the late Mo Mowlam who brokered the Good Friday agreement, although he did pay tribute to John Major who had the courage to start negotiations with the IRA.

The privatisation of public services continued under Blair and Labour gave away far too much power to big business letting the market drive everything as the Tories did. Introducing so many a target-driven systems inevitably lead to corruption and short cuts. Education and the NHS suffered as a result. Blair inherited an economy in reasonably good shape from the Tories. After 18 years of misery, they had finally managed to turn things around and unemployment was lower and so was inflation. Blair took the credit for this and managed to continue the trend for a while. But again, this progress is deceptive. Unemployment continued to fall in the beginning of Labour's tenure, but the jobs on offer were and are largely insecure and low paid McJobs that do nothing for social mobility.

The Tories would never have gotten away with the privatisations in the health service and education that Blair has undertaken, and 'Old' Labour would never have dreamed of carrying out these 'reforms'. By doing them under 'New' Labour, the public could be convinced that these changes were for the better. Tony Blair in this respect seems to be like a Trojan Horse put into the ranks of the Labour party in order to do the things that the Tories couldn't. The Tories protest about Tony Blair, but he has carried out their policies and done them a favour because he will take the rap for the inevitable failings of these policies allowing them to claim that they can do better. When they return to power they will merely continue the process started by Thatcher and take it to new depths now that Blair has done the difficult bit for them.

From the start of Blair's tenure as leader of the Labour Party, he sought to seduce big business. His party needed support and cash and by selling access, and later peerages, the money rolled in. It was only a matter of time before Labour got rumbled for this and a large part of Blair's legacy will be the cash for honours investigation where he became the first Prime Minister to be interviewed by the police in a scandal - twice. The cash for peerages scandal was yet another miserable milestone of the Blair premiership. Even more shocking was the decision by Blair to halt the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the corruption surrounding the BAE - al Yamamah arms dealing with Saudi Arabia. This has done immense damage to Britain's international standing and the country can no longer criticise corruption abroad and be taken seriously.

What Blair will be remembered for mostly is, of course, the Iraq war. Up until then the electorate were pretty forgiving but all that changed with the lies leading up to the illegal invasion and the chaos that followed it. By ignoring between one and two million people on the streets of London he showed a contempt for the wishes of most people in Britain. He only got support for the war by exaggerating the supposed threat from Iraq. When the falsehoods about Iraq's WMD were exposed, it lead to the highly suspicious death of the prominent scientist Dr David Kelly and an inquiry that was an obvious whitewash. The only resignations from this saga were from the BBC which became emasculated as a result. The worse the situation in Iraq got, the more exposed Blair and New Labour became. Blair focussed on preventing any meaningful discussion on the war either in Parliament or through further inquiries.

Of course the Iraq and Afghan wars were just the latest in a series of campaigns that Blair either participated in or supported. In 1998 Britain bombed Iraq with the Clinton administration, in 1999 it joined in the bombing of Serbia. Britain backed the attack on Chechnya by Russia under Vladimir Putin. And in 2006 Blair wholeheartedly supported the Israeli assault on Lebanon. While Blair made loud claims to be supporting democracy and freedom, his government backed repellent regimes like those in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Colombia. While Indonesia was attacking Aceh province in 2003, Britain was supplying weapons to it. On a more positive note, the sending of British troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 did help end the civil war there.

Part of the fall out from the Iraq war was the continued disenfranchisement of young Muslims in Britain furious at Britain's involvement in the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and its unqualified support for Israel and refusal to speak out against the atrocities committed against Palestinians. An already high threat of terrorism got much higher and on July 7th 2005 the first suicide bombings in western Europe took place in London killing 52 people and maiming hundreds more. Blair resolutely refused to to equate this event with his foreign policy and lies were trotted out to cover the incompetence of the security services who had been following at least two of the bombers. The government still refuses to hold a public or independent inquiry into this event.

What has happened though is an unprecedented attack on the long-held civil liberties of Britain. Under Blair Britain became a surveillance society with more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. Demonstrating outside Parliament became illegal without prior permission from the police. Despite all opposition against the idea, Blair pushed hard to impose ID cards on us all with biometric information and all details about us (including medical) easily accessed by government departments as well as fraudsters. The right to trial by jury is being eroded, habeas corpus has been suspended.

Yet despite all these measures, Britain is no safer according to the same government who introduced this Draconian legislation. We are constantly being told of numerous terror threats against us. Whether real or exaggerated, the population is being kept in a state of fear and therefore more likely to accept even more erosions of civil liberties.

Crime and punishment were obsessions with Blair, particularly when it came to anti-social behaviour. During his tenure 3,000 new criminal offences were created. Since coming to office there have been 53 law and order bills. Unsurprisingly this had led to an explosion in the prison population in Britain making it the highest in Europe at about 80,000 compared with the 50,000 it was when Blair took office. The severe overcrowding in Britain's prisons has led to proposals to build more of them and loud calls to cut the prison population.

Part of Blair's obsession with punishment can be put down to the relatively new phenomenon of government by tabloid. Blair, more than any other Prime Minister, has been heavily influenced by the tabloid newspapers, particularly The Sun. Rupert Murdoch helped formulate the public opinion that got Blair elected and has since had a hold on him. This has resulted in knee-jerk legislation coming from New Labour every time a grizzly story hits the headlines. For all his enthusiasm for the law, Blair has been quite happy to twist it to suit his agenda. We've seen him do this in the case of the Chagos Islanders. Similarly, the courts were used to prevent three Britons from suing Saudi Arabia for torturing them after pressure from the Saudis.

Under Blair democracy itself has come under pressure. Blair introduced a series of gimmicks designed to create the illusion of increasing democracy in Britain, the results have been the opposite. New voting methods have led to electoral fraud. Just about every petition on the Downing Street website has been ignored, including one with over a million signatures. We've heard 'The Big Conversation', we've also seen an 80 year-old heckler manhandled out of a Labour Party conference and we've seen a woman arrested for reading out the names of people killed in Iraq. The Terrorism Act is used as a catch-all to prevent any sort of dissent. There was even an attempt to pass a law allowing further laws to be made without Parliamentary scrutiny called the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Although a good performer in Parliament, Blair was never much of a parliamentarian, his style was always more presidential and tried to push through controversial legislation with a minimum of debate. From early on in his premiership he relied more on unelected advisers than on cabinet ministers. He changed Prime Minister's Questions from twice a week to just one 30 minute session. Accountability to Parliament has become an issue now. Before Blair came to power, the slightest whiff of a scandal would result in a resignation. Now Parliament is regularly misled and resignations are few and usually by disgusted politicians rather than scandal-ridden ones. When scandal has forced the resignation of politicians, they often reappeared shortly afterwards as in the cases of Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett.

People have become more and more disillusioned with party politics as they see little difference between the party in power and the opposition. And when Labour was re-elected in 2005 with just 22 percent of the electorate, the need for electoral reform was highlighted as never before. Britain now has the lowest voter turn-out in Europe when it comes to general elections. Voter turn-out has fallen from 72 percent in 1997 to 60 percent in 2005.

On the international stage, Blair's credibility was severely undermined by his closeness to the Bush administration and his inability to criticise it no matter what atrocities it committed or supported. Guantanamo was merely "an anomaly". In many cases it seems that Britain was actively involved in abuses. This is evident by Britain's close collusion with the USA in 'extraordinary rendition' with the UK being used as a stop-over for CIA flights taking abducted people to countries where they were tortured. Britain's denials of any involvement have proved to be false and the lack of co-operation with the subsequent investigations is a matter of record.

Internationally Blair became known as Bush's poodle and this label reflected Britain's position as little more than a client state of the USA. In this 'special relationship', Blair has allowed the USA to sack British Ministers, to rewrite his speeches in America and Blair had to ask permission from Bush before embarking on diplomatic missions. The isolation of Britain and the United States became glaringly apparent during the Lebanon war where Britain and America alone with Israel opposed the rest of the world which called for a ceasefire.

Another legacy of the Blair era is the sharp divisions in society which he failed to address. Under Blair, there has been an 'economic apartheid' with child poverty among ethnic minorities much higher than the rest of the population. And the inequalities don't stop there. Recently there has been a string of reports highlighting the inequalities in Britain which has the second highest child death rate among the 24 richest countries in the world. Child poverty in Britain is increasing and a recent UNICEF report showed Britain's children to be the unhappiest, most neglected and poorly educated among the world's 21 richest countries.

Like Blair, Gordon Brown refuses to tackle the issue. Social mobility in Britain has effectively been frozen so there is even less opportunity for people to climb out of the poverty trap. The introduction of University tuition fees (that Blair had originally said would not be introduced in his election manifesto) frightened off many poorer students from furthering their education because of the huge debts they would be saddled with for much of their working life. So much for "education education education". Under Blair the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably.

Will things improve under Gordon Brown? Superficially possibly but somehow I doubt there will be any real improvement. Brown is one of the architects of 'New Labour' and another fan of Thatcher. While he has been happy to hide and let Blair take the flack for New Labour's failings, he himself is behind many of those failings as we saw with the recent pensions scandal. Brown could have threatened to resign (or be sacked) over the Iraq war if he was as opposed to it as has been reported by David Blunkett. A high-profile resignation like that of the chancellor of the exchequer would have had a huge impact on Blair's credibility earlier on and might have changed the policy. Instead he chose to go along with something he knew to be wrong. That says much about his character.

Right from the beginning of Blair's long departure, Gordon Brown has been portrayed as the only viable replacement. Most of the other potential candidates are broadly similar in political outlook to Blair with the only one offering an alternative set of policies being John McDonnell. Needless to say, this threat to the status quo has been pretty much marginalised by the media. New Labour seems determined to carry on regardless of the failures of its policies. Blair, no doubt, will see this as as a sign of his lasting legacy and maybe it is but it's not one to be proud of.

So what next for Blair? There has been plenty of speculation as to what Blair will do next. The most common view is that he will tour on the lucrative lecture circuit, but there have been plenty of other rumours too. Some speculate that he will work (or rather continue to work) for Rupert Murdoch, others think that he might get a job at the UN or the European Union. Perhaps he might want some ambassadorial role which will give him some needed diplomatic immunity from potential prosecution. He may start off by taking one of the freebie holidays he has become notorious for (the Italian media has dubbed Blair "Lo Scroccone" - the scrounger) although they might be harder to come by now. Whatever Blair does I hope he is never again given the amount of responsibility and power he had as Prime Minister of the UK. While it still seems unlikely he will be prosecuted for war crimes, it isn't a total impossibility and a one way ticket to the Hague is what is hoped for by many.

The Happiest Man in Britain


Click on the photo for a brief summary of our views on the forthcoming coronation.

Blair: The Countdown Begins


Tony Blair will stand down on the 27th June.

He made the announcement in a speech to party activists in his Sedgefield constituency, after earlier briefing the Cabinet on his plans.

Now that Blair has made his announcement we can expect a plethora of eulogies to his time in office. The BBC has already started. As you'd expect, we have a few things to say about the Blair era. Our obituary to Blair will follow shortly.

SNP Wins in Scotland

The results of the elections in Scotland are all in now after several delays and it looks like the SNP did just manage to beat Labour by one seat. Tony Blair may be insisting that what has happened over the last 24 hours wasn't a "rout" but the results speak for themselves. The SNP is now the party with the most seats in Scotland and can negotiate with other parties to form a government. And Labour didn't fare much better in England and Wales. It might be an exaggeration to call it a rout but a series of defeats it certainly was and Blair is going to have to take the rap for it.

Tony Blair has insisted Labour has avoided a "rout" despite suffering a historic defeat to the SNP in Scotland and big losses in England and Wales.

In the Scottish elections, which have been marred by huge problems with the voting system, the SNP surged to take over as the biggest party.

 In Wales Labour lost three seats to Plaid Cymru but still remains the biggest party. In England the Tories have gained over 830 new council seats but their share of the vote remains static at 40 percent - hardly "stunning" as David Cameron called it but a good indication of the dire trouble Labour is now in. The Lib Dems have lost five councils and New Labour has lost eight. It's going to be hard for Labour to dress this up as some kind of victory. Blair, deluded as ever however, is spinning the results as a "springboard" for a Labour victory in the next general election.

The Tories may have cause for some celebration but the Lib Dems much less so, they lost heavily in England and mostly to the Tories. The real story seems to be the results in Scotland with Jack McConnell likely to be ousted as First Minister and Alex Salmond able to say things like:

"Never again will the Labour Party think it has a divine right to government."

The results in Scotland were delayed because as many as 100,000 voters spoiled their ballot papers and also because of problems with voting machines and complex ballot papers. The Electoral Commission has promised to investigate the problems with a full independent review. What will be interesting to watch now will be the battles ahead between Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond who obviously loathe each other.

John McDonnell Interview


An in depth interview with John McDonnell, shamelessly  cut and pasted from GrimmerUpNorth.

[Full article also archived here]

..."Why is Gordon Brown desperate not to have me stand?

"I don't necessarily think he's worried about losing. What he and his colleagues are worried about in new Labour is that, if I stand, it will demonstrate that there is overwhelming support for our ideas and that might well be translated into a significant vote - and I'm confident about that, both in trade unions and among local Labour Party members.

"What we'll have done is we'll have recreated the broad church of the Labour Party.

"Once we've done that, there is no leader who wants to win the next election that can ignore that that force has re-emerged. Whether it be in changing policy or the composition of government, any leader who wants to win the next election will have to take that into account."...

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