Thursday 5 May 2005

Tony Blair's time is over

The middle England magician has lost his touch and put the election at risk. He must go - and soon

by Polly Toynbee

Give Tony Blair a bloody nose on Thursday? This election has already inflicted a more mortal wound. Even without knowing the result, the election has changed everything. The political talk of just six months ago already belongs to a bygone era. Even if Labour wins a sizable majority, Blair's time is over as the ground shifts fast beneath his feet; he is yesterday's man. By 2am on Friday morning, after the first flood of results, the only question in the television studios will be: when will he go? It will be the only question in the Westminster lobby, twice a day, every day. Even a very unlikely three-figure majority will make no difference to his own trajectory now. If Labour wins, it will be despite not because of him, and that marks a mighty change in the political weather.

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Every Labour MP and canvasser out there has heard enough "No, not for Tony Blair" to know he could never now persuade a sullen electorate to do anything difficult - and a prime minister who has run out of persuasion has run out of power. I have been struck forcibly - and taken aback - by the level of dislike, anger and contempt for him. It isn't just a chattering-class thing; it is everywhere, even in all the places where people have most reason to appreciate the best that Labour has done. Polls may find that people regard him as the most competent of the three leaders to run the country, but that's no tough contest. He could never now, for instance, see Britain safely through a referendum on the European constitution. As the French swing round to "yes", a new leader needs to be in place with the best chance of winning that tough argument for us.

Iraq was never parked, even among the non-political. It swirls about everywhere, either for itself or as a totem of rebellion against Blair, who now takes the entire blame for anything and everything. The anti-Blair response on the doorstep has been a near-universal phenomenon, and when MPs return to find gaping holes on the green benches where close comrades once sat, they will all have experienced that blowback from every front door. It has been strange, but Blair has drawn all the party's poison on to himself - liar, untrusted, smirker, whatever. But his war explains only half of it.

For something else has been at work here that we should be wary of. Call it the Sharon Storer effect from the last election - but shouting at him or other ministers has become the instinctive posture of even the most non-political voters. It is the Daily Mail effect, day after relentless day of heaping scorn. It is the Humphrys/Paxman effect. It is the result of seeing people encouraged by David Dimbleby to shout at the prime minister as if that were now the ordinary mode of address to politicians. Blair's "masochism strategy" may have attracted sympathy or even respect for not running away, but in the broad sweep of relations between people and politicians it was a another downward step. Indignant personal anecdote is eagerly devised by producers who think politics boring and abuse makes good TV - but it illuminates nothing about politics or the ideological divides between the parties. Personal anecdote drives out ideas and only encourages the dismal view that politics is all me, me, me and what my MP will deliver me, shopping not voting.

When Blair goes, his departure will cauterise the angriest wounds of the war and much else: the million marchers will have their scalp and Iraq will be his epitaph. But how history judges him will partly depend on how well his successor does. Labour has the chance to start again under Gordon Brown, but his honeymoon will be exceedingly short. How will he fare under unaccustomed attack? To do down Blair, the Mail has lavished praise on Brown, so we don't yet know how the Tory press will frame their assault. Obstinate, grudge-bearing, cliquish? If Blair ran a sofa government, will they say Brown's looks more like one armchair?

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