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22 September 2003

Why we need a new Prime Minister

An open letter to Tony Blair by Austin Mitchell MP

By Austin Mitchell

Dear Tony

As your next question session with MPs from my part of the alphabet isn’t until next year, I’ll put this in writing. You should think of stepping down. The Hutton report will exonerate you. It should let you step down next year in the glow of making us the natural party of government and walking on water for seven years. Not a bad record. Which is another reason to go. Before the record gets tarnished and the water gets choppy.

I don’t say “go” because Hugo Young, Clare Short and the growing mob of multifarious malcontents already have. Their advice is sour grapes and a good argument for staying. But you should listen to a semi-loyal backbencher whose advice is unalloyed by ambition, ego or the power jostlings of the big boys, but concerned principally with the interests of the party. Unlike the pygmy clamour of “go now”, which would be a disastrous scuttle, I’m saying that you should prepare the way for an orderly transition. Make your mind up now. Warn the likely contenders so they can set out their stalls and build their teams and Gordon can loosen his stays and smile. Then announce your departure next May.

Nothing to do with Iraq. You over-egged that pudding, but we did get rid of a nasty regime and maintained the American alliance in preference to the axis of weasels. The real reasons are more basic. With modern pressures, leaders should be disposable. The electorate and the media get bored, alienated and malevolent. What was once fresh and clever becomes a liability and the once delightful becomes discredited. We know our leaders too well. If electors outside California could recall leaders, they would.

You’ve run out of mates, policies and time. No use saying, “Look at the big picture.” That doesn’t show the improvement people wanted. No use looking to relaunch number eight. That will only be another burble about radicalism, privatisation, the euro and a few IDS jokes. No use abandoning spin, then bringing Mandy back.

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Labour’s gone from the super to the ordinary with no great achievement between. You’ve nothing new to offer apart from your role as world crusader, punishing wickedness in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone or Iraq. That’s an amazing transformation from your normal compromising caution but something neither party nor country particularly relishes.

Harold Wilson decided to retire because he had no new answers. Now you’re in the same situation. Blairism, the Third Way and new Labour are all exhausted. Without much higher economic growth, the only way to improve our shoddy public sector is higher taxation. But we can offer only compassionate conservatism because the bankers in control of our interest rates keep them higher than anyone else’s and use the overvalued pound as a weapon against inflation, however great the damage to production. We’ve tied our hands against everything we need to finish a job you’ve merely started. It would have made sense to say at the last election: “You know Labour government works. Now let’s build on that.” We didn’t. But someone else can. That means a change of image, approach and leader.

Gordon Brown is the inevitable alternative, and he’s much more of a redistributionist than you’ll ever be. He’s also complicit in many of the retrograde policies, but, relieved of the need to defend the controlling position he got as part of the Granita deal, he could be a different man. Gordon knows how the levers work and where the pain is but can’t currently do much about either without surrendering some power. As PM, when his future and the party’s depend on growth and fairer taxes, not PFI and candle ends, that compulsion goes. But there will be other candidates. If our leadership election doesn’t become personalised and divisive, it will be a renewal. Each candidate can state their agenda. The party can decide which road it wants to travel. A serious choice will demonstrate the maturity you’ve brought us to, while the party and unions get back the influence they’ve lost.

You could soldier on. You’re our most eloquent PM ever. You’re a great explainer, but less believed. Your strategy isn’t felt to be delivering. With a majority to do anything, we’ve not done much. Now we’ve wasted the past year.

So going before it all turns sour is easier and better than the Indians-to-wagon-train approach which will come later. It’s entirely your decision. No compulsion beyond the rising tide of grumbles and disenchantment. Labour is always too kind to leaders and doesn’t have the Tory skill at knives in the back, bodies in the river. Yet your achievement has been great: you took over a party with a galloping inferiority complex but now, after power has rebuilt confidence and brought a battle-hardened team at the top, Labour’s a different animal.

The final stage of its maturity can only be the dismantling of presidential leadership by clique, party management by fairy tale, top-down control, and the propensity to kick party and unions to please the media. Labour is ready to return to team government and can now venture out on its own without repeating the nervous breakdowns of the early 1980s.

If you let us. It’s between you and your conscience. It will mean giving up the freeloading celeb circuit and the power that comes from holding all the threads. But you are becoming the last barrier between Labour and the confidence and maturity that you set out to rebuild.

Austin Mitchell MP

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