Counter-factuals are all the rage these days. Our understanding of history and politics is improved, I would suggest, by speculation about what would have happened to the course of history had alternative events, rather than the real ones, occurred.
One of the most famous what ifs concerns the path world history might have taken had Churchill failed to become prime minister in May 1940 and a government led by appeasers had sued for peace with a triumphant Germany. But there are rather smaller scale, but no less fascinating, alternative histories to be told, many of which are featured in BiteBack’s latest offering, Prime Minister Corbyn… and other things that never happened (to which I am a contributor). What if Lyndon Johnson had been shot down in 1942? What if Britain had lost the Falklands War? And what if Scotland had voted yes in 2014?
One piece of speculation that is not included in this latest collection concerns Tony Blair. As you know, Tony Blair resigned as prime minister in October 2004, giving way to Gordon Brown and jetting off to Brussels to become President of the European Commission. But what if he hadn’t?
What if, instead of doing that, he had remained in office just a little bit longer and fought the next election? Indeed, he might well have brought it forward to 2005 instead of waiting until the fag end of the parliament as his successor disastrously did. How would British – and European – history have been altered if Blair had succeeded where Brown failed, and won an overall majority and a third consecutive election victory? How would today’s political establishment look had Michael Howard’s ill-fated Con-Dem coalition government had never taken office?
There is no guarantee, of course, that even Blair’s election-winning talents would have saved his party from the humiliation handed out to it by the voters in 2006, depriving it of an overall majority. Brown’s critics, with the benefit of hindsight, claim his prevarication over whether to call an election in 2005 led to his ultimate defeat a year later when he was forced to the wire. The same people claim that Blair would have expressed no such caution. But from the perspective of 2016, it seems inconceivable that, just two years after the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent failure to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, even Blair’s golden touch could have saved his party from defeat.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Blair did indeed resist the encouragement of his chancellor to depart in 2004 and went on to fight – and win – in 2005. The most obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that the UK today would still be a member of the EU. Howard’s Conservatives and Kennedy’s LibDems didn’t agree on much when they formed their coalition in 2006, but they agreed that the issue of our EU membership had to be settled once and for all (albeit on opposing sides of the argument). As we now know, Howard’s instinct to support Leave was echoed volubly by the electorate and Kennedy’s sole legacy of three years as Deputy Prime Minister was to watch glumly from the Treasury bench as the prime minister gleefully announced the triggering of Article 50 of the EU treaties.
Had Blair remained at Number 10, at least for a couple of years after a third victory, he would never have countenanced such a referendum, and might even have attempted to integrate the UK even more closely with its then EU partners. Perhaps a three-times prime minister might even have been able to negotiate the adoption of the euro. Instead, his elevation to the post of president of the EU Commission meant a fruitless battle to prevent Howard’s referendum in the first place, then numerous interventions in the campaign itself which even his supporters now consider were counter-productive. Then, of course, the humiliation of resignation once the country he had once led was no longer an EU member.
Had Blair chosen to stay on at Number 10 beyond 2004, there is no question that he would have been forced to dispense with the services of his chancellor, who would have made the business of government, up to and beyond the election, whenever Blair decided to call it, impossible. The plus side for Mr Brown is that he could easily have found a new international role for himself, instead of being forever known as the man who Michael Howard beat, having had the shortest tenure as Prime Minister since Alec Douglas Home.
And with Brown departed, who knows? A third term majority Labour government might have done great things. It might have finished the job of public service reform particularly in the nation’s schools and hospitals. It would certainly have allowed for Labour’s potential leadership talent to emerge and blossom in a way that was simply not possible while Brown held sway. And perhaps Blair would even have considered doing what no serving prime minister has ever achieved, and fought and won a fourth election.
There would have been consequences for the Conservatives too. The confused and often chaotic Conservative-led coalition that fell apart in the wake of the EU referendum lasted only three years, with Prime Minister Miliband’s minority government taking over in 2009. The Tory schism that followed will probably mean the end of the Conservative Party in any meaningful form for at least a generation.
But had Blair been triumphant in 2005/6, Howard would almost certainly have been replaced by David Davis, the arch-Eurosceptic, and, in the absence of opposition from his own side, Blair would perhaps have faced, for the first time in his premiership, some robust opposition from the Conservatives.
Such speculation is perhaps pointless. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the decisions of leaders and prime ministers to walk away – or not to walk away – at crucial points in history have profound consequences. Blair’s early resignation at the prompting of his chancellor led directly to the UK’s removal from the EU, the installation of Michael Howard as prime minister and, eventually, to David Miliband’s long tenure at Number 10.
It could all have been so very, very different.
News Source TelegraphNews