2006-04-20

Blair's Fergusonian Strategy


Alex Ferguson, long time manager of Manchester United, announced his retirement from football management in the early naughties (01, 02, 0?). Over the previous fifteen or so years he had transformed the club from talented under-achievers into the dominant footballing force of the era. He ruled English football, virtually unchallenged. He was then 63-ish and his plan was to stop at the end of the season during which he turned 65. The idea behind the announcement was to allow a smooth managerial transition for the club. Speculation about Ferguson's replacement was intense, nowhere more so than in the team dressing room, where the players were more interested in who would follow than in listening to their gaffer. None of the candidates quite seemed up to the job. The team's performance was adversely affected. The announcement was widely viewed as a mistake. Ferguson then announced his non-retirement, with much rejoicing from fans of the club. He is still in charge of the club, at the age of 66 or 67. While they have not revisited some of their previous heights, they and Ferguson are doing ... okay, pretty well. The episode played out over a couple of years. For fans of English football it was a hot topic.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour's two big hitters after John Smith's death, were to be rivals for the leadership of the party. To get them on the same ticket, a compromise was reached: Brown would take second spot to Blair; once in power, Blair would serve two terms as premier and then relinquish power to Brown. Power, of course, has a tendency to corrupt those who have it. So we can assume, as Blair's second term was coming to a close, that he would be fucked by pigs rather than honour his commitment to stand down in favour of Brown. What Blair wanted was a way to not honour his commitment without that appearing to be the case. How could he quit without quitting? Blair follows football: his support of Newcastle United, like his glottal stops, is trotted out to show that he is a man of the people, a regular bloke, a pretty straight kind of guy. He has even appeared on the BBC's saturday morning football preview show, Football Focus, a show he claims to watch whenever he can.

Ferguson had no strategy, as such, regarding the announcement of his retirement (except the stated aim of a smooth transition). Blair, familiar with the United chief's retirement saga, was inspired by it. He annouced that he would stand down as prime minister after the third election, thus honouring his widely known commitment, albeit with the slight twist that he will have been in power for two and a bit terms rather than two. That 'bit of a term', rather vague, becomes an elastic period. When, er, exactly is he to stand down? No-one knows and Blair is not saying. Blair has navigated Brown into an unique no-man's land: as long as Blair sets the agenda, any attempt by Brown to appear prime ministerial looks misplaced; if Brown does not look prime ministerial, then questions are raised about his suitability for the succession -- Brown is in a political zugzwang! Any other possible leadership contender will be rookie-like in comparison with Blair. Thus, the way is paved for Blair, at some suitable point, to announce his non-retirement and look like the saviour of the Labour Party.

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