W and the TB-GBs

The British public is, by now, quite familiar with blowups between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. An uneasy détente normally exists between the two men. Its periodic breakdown is known affectionately in Westminster as the “TB-GBs.” Yet the dramatic events of last week were no mere spat -- they were an assassination attempt. On this side of the Atlantic, however, the role America played in that attempt's buildup remains poorly understood. It was Blair's good relationship with President Bush, as much as bad blood with Brown, that stands directly responsible for recent crisis -- and in particular Blair's recent, unswerving support for the United States during the Lebanon war.

The story behind last week's drama begins in 1994, with the sudden death of then Labour leader John Smith. Blair and Brown were their party's rising stars. They were friends sharing both offices in parliament and a mutual despair over the electoral failure of their party. Brown was the senior partner and most likely leader. But following Smith's death the party realized that Blair was the stronger, more electable candidate.

In a now-legendary meeting, the two men convened privately in an upscale North London restaurant to hash out their futures. The meal is the stuff of British political legend. It spawned books, a television drama, and reams of newspaper speculation. Even today, no one, beyond the diners, knows precisely what happened. But it is assumed a deal was struck: Blair would, at some point, stand aside for Brown.

Ten years and two election victories later, Blair had become the Labor party's most successful leader. But how long would he stay? He had said publicly that he did not want to, in the words of Mrs. Thatcher, “go on and on.” Traditionally British Prime Ministers leave office for one of only three reasons: an election loss, their health, or the lack of their party's support. Under pressure from his chancellor and his party to be more clear about his intentions, Blair decided to do try for a fourth option: were he to win a third term, he announced, he would not stand again.

Initially he hoped this timetable would stop the speculation. In fact, the opposite occurred. Seriously damaged by his support for the war in Iraq, Blair won a less-than-convincing election victory in 2005. The defeated Conservative Party, unusually, chose an able and electable new leader. The situation in Iraq worsened. Blair's popularity plummeted. His party worried they might lose the next election. Brown fretted that his former friend would backslide on his commitment to leave. British politics reduced to one question: When precisely would he go?

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and a second private dinner in a curry house in the British West-midlands. A group of MPs met for a regular meal. The conversation turned to Blair. The participants -- including Tom Watson, the government minister who resigned last week -- decided to answer the big question. Blair must go now. They resolved to write a private letter to encourage him to do so.

In the days that followed, rumors of a plot began to fly around Westminster. Sensing crisis, Blair staged a significant reversal. David Milliband, a loyal minister, gave a radio interview last Monday saying that that the prime minister would not be in office in a year's time. But even this retreat was not enough. On Tuesday the letter was sent, and released to the public. Watson resigned, along with a number of other more junior government officials.

With his government in crisis, the prime minister began a fierce two-day battle to save his skin. Blair and Brown met twice the next day in Downing Street, engaging in what newspapers called a shouting match. They reached a deal, but not without Blair authorizing his allies to tell the world that he had been blackmailed by his chancellor. On Thursday, Blair said publicly for the first time that he planned to stay for no more than a year.

In public Blair was apologetic for the week's events. But his supporters were furious. They launched a series of blistering, expletive-laden counterattacks on Brown. One senior figure was quoted in The Sunday Times, saying, “Tony wants to exit in his own time -- he doesn't want this fuck to see him out.” An unnamed cabinet minister added diplomatically: “I will stop fucking Gordon."

The attempt by Watson and others was clearly aimed at forcing Blair from office. Circumstantial evidence suggests the chancellor was behind it. Watson visited Brown's home the week before his resignation, and was frequently described in newspapers as someone who would not break wind without Brown's approval. Nevertheless, those I spoke to who would be in a position to know were skeptical that Brown had directly orchestrated the plot himself. One Blair loyalist said even he didn't “buy that it was an organized coup” by Brown.

The question remains, why now? The answer brings us to President Bush. Blair's recent troubles really began during his embarrassing recorded exchange with Bush at the G8 summit. Their conversation horrified Labour MPs. Bush looked like an idiot. It was difficult to work out which was more insulting: his frat-boyish “Yo Blair” greeting or his seeming indifference to the plight of Lebanese civilians. But it was Blair's subservient posture that hurt most.

As the conflict intensified. British public opinion, in common with the rest of Europe, sided overwhelmingly with the people of Lebanon. Israel's actions were “disproportionate.” Blair's staunch support for Bush, and his unwillingness to call for a ceasefire, were slammed even by previously ultra-loyal MPs. All of the bad feeling about Blair's support for Bush in Iraq came roaring back to the surface. In the words of one Blair critic who helped organize opposition: “Lebanon ratcheted up the pressure massively. It was the real tipping point.”

Ultimately, then, it was Blair's support for his American ally that outraged his party, broke the balance of power with his chancellor, and laid the ground for the curry house coup that followed. And as he surveys the most damaging week of his political career, Blair must realize that Gordon Brown wasn't the only GB responsible for last week's most severe attack of the TB-GBs. George Bush is also to blame.

James Crabtree is a senior policy advisor at NDN.

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