Davi Runciman: Blair, not Bush, will end up trapped in a paradox

Roundup: Historians' Take

[The writer is author of The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order (Princeton University Press).]

As they struggle desperately to nail down their legacies, Tony Blair appears to have one big advantage over George W. Bush: he can pick the timing of his departure. Mr Bush, like all lame duck US presidents, has no option but to limp through to the finish line. The British prime minister can choose his moment to get out on top. But the lesson of history suggests something quite different. Mr Bush is the fortunate one to have no choice in this matter. It is Mr Blair and the Labour party who are now trapped.

When Enoch Powell, the former Conservative minister, said that all political careers end in tragedy, he was clearly not thinking of two-term US presidents. In the postwar era, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton all benefited from having to see out their second terms, no matter how bad things got. At least two of these (Truman and Clinton) would probably have been forced from office under a parliamentary system as a liability to their parties. The case of Truman should be of particular comfort to the present US administration. An inexperienced president who owed his office more to chance than any obvious ability, he seemed out of his depth early in his second term, despite having pulled off a plucky and unexpected election victory. His commitment to an unpopular and unwinnable war in Korea sent his approval ratings to record lows. Still, he had no choice but to plough on. His doggedness eventually won him the respect of the public and ultimately that of historians too. Mr Bush will do his utmost to follow this example.

Mr Blair has tried to fashion an es-cape route from Powell's iron law of parliamentary life by constructing a pseudo-presidential term limit for himself. But in attempting to retain control over the timing of his departure, all he has done is create the worst of both worlds. Labour is now stuck in a version of the executioner's paradox, which says that if you tell a prisoner you will execute them by surprise one morning over the following week (to spare them a sleepless night), you will find you cannot execute them at all. By Thursday evening it will no longer be a surprise, which rules Friday out; so by Wednesday evening it will no longer be a surprise, which rules Thursday out, and so on. The result is no one sleeps a wink. Mr Blair's announcement that he would serve a full term before standing down was intended to quell the speculation that would otherwise surround his every move but it has had the opposite effect. Everything Mr Blair does is enveloped in a miasma of second-guessing because no one believes he can see it through to the end. Were he to make it near to the end of this parliament, both his enemies and his supporters would cease to believe he had any intention of standing down. What the executioner's paradox shows is that you cannot set an end point to your ambitions and preserve your freedom of manoeuvre beforehand....

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