What leadership is for…

Alex with some pertainent thoughts from the Newsletter last Saturday, on the meaning of leadership, and what it doesn’t. He argues Blair should go, someone should challenge Brown, and the DUP should learn that being ‘top dog’ is not good enough in itself. Sometimes the country’s needs should come before narrow party interest.By Alex Kane

Over the last few days I have been reading Roy Jenkins’ magisterial biography of William Gladstone and I was particularly struck by one comment; “Nearly all Prime Ministers are dissatisfied with their successors, perhaps even more so if they come from their own party.”

The truth, of course, is that Tony Blair doesn’t actually want Gordon Brown to be Prime Minister. He knows that Brown is the weaker man and he has known it since that moment in the mid-1990s when the two of them reached an understanding that Blair would have first shot at the top job. At that point in their political and parliamentary careers Brown was clearly the more experienced and more respected politician. He was certainly more interested in philosophical left-of-centre values than Blair and had a firmer and more intense vision of what Labour should be.

Blair, on the other hand, had a much better understanding of the “image and legacy problem” facing the party and knew that a coat of paint on old Labour wasn’t going to get it back into power again. So Blair, today, more so than anyone else, should understand both the nature and scale of the problem he faces. It is his image which is utterly tarnished; and in an era when voters gravitate towards the leader rather than simply the party, it is their perception of Blair himself which could result in electoral catastrophe in 2009.

But Blair is the first Prime Minister from the rock-and-roll generation and, as we all know, old rockers never fade away, they just embark on endless farewell tours. Blair is adopting the same approach, desperately hoping that one more version of an old policy hit will reassure the hardcore fans and win over some new ones. Brown, meanwhile, remains trapped in the gilded cage; too scared to resign and force a real crisis for Blair, even though he knows that the Prime Minister is in a very weak position. His inability to move in for the kill is another sign that he lacks that genuine thirst for power which is essential if you are to be an effective leader.

Speaking a couple of years after she was brutally and swiftly turfed out of office, Margaret Thatcher said, “I think sometimes the Prime Minister should be intimidating. There’s not much point being a weak, floppy thing in the chair, is there”? Mr. Blair should watch again the footage from those few weeks in October 1990 and draw the only available conclusion. He cannot carry on until next spring or summer. He has lost the power to intimidate and he has become that weak, floppy thing in the chair. He lacks the personal, political, public and party authority to remain in office. He should announce his immediate departure at the annual conference in a few weeks time. And the rest of us should hope that someone will challenge the please-let-me-have-the-job Brown and seize the crown for themselves.

Closer to home, some within the DUP will be watching the Labour debacle with interest. Ian Paisley is not immortal and nor is he immune from illness or accident. While I don’t subscribe to the view that the DUP is a coalition of warring factions held together by Dr. Paisley, I do detect signs of internal tensions and long-term strategy differences, all of which could tumble out in a free-for-all power struggle if there isn’t an orderly handover of the leadership reins sooner rather than later.

Leadership isn’t just about being top dog. Sometimes it’s about knowing the right time and the right way to hand over to a successor of your party’s choosing. Sometimes it’s about putting the interests of the country above and beyond all else. My father once told me, “never be entirely dependent upon the advice of people on your payroll, for it will always be one-sided and self-interested.” Mr. Blair should go and go quickly. The longer he hangs on, the colder and lonelier he will find the Number 10 bunker.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 9th September, 2006.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty