A Blair-sized hole

As the Prime Minister prepares to depart these shores with his interfaith foundation, it may not be

After the initial fanfare of his departure announcement, Tony Blair intends to slip away quietly. Having delivered devolved government in Northern Ireland, he hopes to spend much of Labour's seven-week leadership election abroad: a G8 summit here, a European Council meeting there, plus a long-planned trip to Africa. When he finally leaves office at the end of June, the man who has dominated the British scene for more than a decade will disappear from front-line domestic politics altogether. As one aide put it to me: "I can assure you that once he has gone, he will not be popping up to talk about city academies."

Blair was advised - long before the difficult night of election results on 3 May - that to stick around, Thatcher-style, would be undignified. He is unlikely to appear at this year's Labour party conference for fear of upstaging his suc cessor. He could even stand down as MP for Sedgefield, the constituency he has represented since 1983. One local man is confident that he has been promised the seat. Others are waiting in the wings.

He will then throw himself into the work of the Blair Foundation, his new organisation devoted to a better understanding of interfaith relations, and, with characteristic hubris, into resolving conflict around the world. For better or worse, when he goes he will leave behind him a large empty space in Britain's public life: a gaping Blair-shaped hole, where the most successful leader in Labour's history once stood.

By the end of the summer, Tony Blair will definitively be gone. Not without a certain relief, he will wash his hands of the country that once embraced him as a Messiah and has now rejected him as a false prophet. The religious resonances of the situation will not be lost on Blair as he plans his interfaith foundation and sets off to cure the ills of the world. Much has been made of the Messianic nature of his politics, but the establishment of the new organisation, likely to be headed by the No 10 deputy chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, takes his faith-based approach to a new level. It will also mark a significant break with Britain. It is not too dramatic to say that we may not see him on these shores for some time.

No longer able to pursue his policy of humanitarian intervention as Prime Minister, he intends to develop it as a full-blown philosophy. One former adviser with knowledge of the new project said: "Precisely because of Iraq, it will be all too easy to delegitimise intervention. He will be consciously trying to rehabilitate his version of a liberal foreign policy."

The last time I suggested that the nation will be bereft when Blair departs, I was taken to task by many on the left for voicing such a treacherous thought. Speaking on Newsnight just after his final conference speech in Manchester last autumn, I dared to suggest that the Prime Minister had been correct in much of his analysis of totalitarian Islamist ideology. Yet, to many of my comrades, he is beyond redemption. In descending order of seriousness he is: a war criminal for Iraq, corrupt (as suggested by the cash-for- honours affair), and a Tory because of his love of the free market and his instinct for privatisation. I soon realised that such is the hostility towards him in some quarters that it was unacceptable to suggest that he might have been right about anything at all.

Blair-less Britain

Such has been the speculation in recent weeks about his exact departure date and about a possible challenge to Gordon Brown, that few have taken the time to wonder what a Britain without Blair will look like.

It is quite possible that those of us who have been the most critical of Blair and Blairism will miss him the most when he is gone, because he provides such a ready and convenient target. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, he has become the living representation of everything to which the left has been historically opposed (empire, big business and conspicuous wealth). But Blair is a more complex figure than either his supporters or detractors would suggest.

Among the lists of quotations about the Blair legacy published in newspapers in recent days, two sharply contradictory judgements leapt out at me. The first was from General Sir Michael Rose on the case for war in Iraq: "If Blair had been a director of Enron, he would be doing 40 years," he said. The second was from David Blunkett, twice removed from high office, but a Blair loyalist to the last: "Today Britain is better-educated, healthier, safer, fairer and more prosperous than ten years ago." The strange thing about the legacy is that both statements are true. Iraq was a series of catastrophic errors and the full scale of the deception that led to war is still to be revealed (as Christopher Ames demonstrates on the previous page). But on the home front, it is difficult to argue that Britain was a better place during the stagnant years of the John Major premiership. Despite Blunkett's best hardline efforts, Britain is, in many ways, a more tolerant and liberal society than it was in 1997, but then, so it should be: we have moved on.

Until recently, Tony Blair had been in denial about his departure. Discussions about his future have been kept to his closest inner circle. Only in recent days has he been prepared to talk more openly about a timetable. To those in the deepest recesses of the bunker, this denial was a necessary strategy to allow the work of governing the country to continue. But such has been the uncertainty around Whitehall that only the residual momentum of the civil service machine has allowed the great ship of state to move on. Senior civil servants have been kept in the dark, looking over their shoulders and wondering who will survive the new regime. There is no grand plan within the departments of state for the Brown era.

Ironically, the one person with whom Blair has been in regular contact during these uncertain times is Brown himself. I am told the two men have been holding regular meetings in the past few weeks, just the two of them, behind closed doors. There is a certain ritual to this. As the Chancellor's flat is famously situated above No 10 rather than No 11 Downing Street, it is a simple matter for him to pop in to the Prime Minister's private office on his way to work. These morning meetings, though sometimes explosive in the past, have formed the basis of a new working relationship between them in the months since last autumn's attempted "coup". Rarely is anyone else present. It seems fitting that the strategy for bringing the Blair era to an end has been drawn up in private between these two, just as they conspired to create new Labour in their shared office all those years ago.

Honour is mine

The strategy that has emerged from those meetings is that Brown will embrace Blair's legacy very publicly, refusing to denigrate or distance himself from the ten-year record. The Chan cellor's gushing tribute in the Sun ("I am honoured to call Tony Blair my oldest friend in politics") was closely followed by Blair's near-endorsement of Brown as the next prime minister. Although the rival camps were kept in the dark about the article and endorsement, both provide clear signs of a coming together of the two men as the day of departure nears. This tactic may help draw the sting out of the Conservatives' plans.

At least for the short term, Brown will celebrate what he sees as the great achievements of the new Labour era. After all, he has as good a claim to a share of the credit as anyone. Blairism is as much the invention of Gordon Brown as it was of the man who lent it its name.

Brown without Blair is an untested quantity. One man who may yet feel the void left by the Prime Minister more than most is the Chancellor himself. One of the many excitements and intrigues of the new era will be to see how Brown copes without his early-morning chats with his neighbour. He will have to be careful. There are many people within the parliamentary party and the wider labour movement who are tired of being lectured by Blair that their values are not "fit for purpose" in the modern world. They are crying out for Brown to differentiate himself from his predecessor as part of the process of party renewal. Brown and those around him will be painfully aware that, on issues such as equality, personal well-being and the environment, new Labour has allowed itself to look distinctly old-fashioned.

Now that the waiting is almost over, the new prime minister should not make the mistake of continuing business as usual when he finally comes to power. A Brown-shaped peg will not plug a Blair-shaped hole.

ELECTION 2007 For Martin Bright's analysis of the crucial 3 May results in Scotland, Wales and England, plus reaction from around the UK, go to our Election 2007 blog at: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/election-2007

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:

Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.