2007: Blair's long goodbye

Tony Blair will step down, at last, in the summer. If he can hold on that long. Here is the inside story of how he survived the last year - and what happens next
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister will come to an end in 2007, but it was in 2006 that he was forced - once again and more precisely this time - to pre-announce his departure. The big moment of the British political year came on 7 September in a north London school. The Prime Minister said, on camera, that he "would have preferred to do this in my own way", but his engagement in Manchester later that month would be "my last party conference as party leader".

At the start of the year, there had been no obvious reason why he should not stay in office until 2008. Even six days before the announcement, he had said that people would think that "we're either paralysed as a government or have run out of steam" if we go on debating a timetable for the handover. So what changed?

It was not the seniority of the rebels that mattered, but their number. Fifteen Labour MPs had signed a letter asking the Prime Minister to "stand aside" for the sake of the party "as a matter of urgency", but this was just the visible part of the iceberg. Working below the surface, Jacqui Smith, Blair's new Chief Whip appointed in the May reshuffle, told the Prime Minister that he had a problem. The demand for a "timetable" for his departure - code for his resignation, on a plate, and soon - had become the focus for general unhappiness among Labour MPs.

She must have told him she could not guarantee that a majority of backbench MPs - those not bound by government discipline - would support him if the timetable issue came to a head. It was not clear how this might happen - there has not been a vote at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party for a long time - but the danger was that the situation could slip quickly out of Blair's control.

His only hope of reasserting his grip was to exploit the fatal ambiguity in the wording of the rebels' grievance, namely what they meant by "soon". By announcing that he would be gone within 12 months, Blair stretched what his MPs could bear and regained the initiative.

But why had Labour MPs decided, so soon after a general election victory, that they had had enough of the most successful election winner their party - any party - had ever had?

Iraq was a factor, of course, despite the fact that Blair had been re-elected since the invasion. Back in 2003, half of Labour backbenchers voted against the Government in Blair's biggest Commons rebellion. The damage done to party unity might have abated had the situation in Iraq improved, but one of the significant developments of 2006 was that it became impossible to deny that conditions in most of the country were terrible, and unlikely to get better for a very long time.

Even that might not have made a difference to Blair had he not misjudged the Lebanon crisis, when Hizbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July. He was justified in supporting Israel's right to defend itself, but he made the mistake of sounding as if he did not care about the collateral deaths of Lebanese babies. His refusal to join the easy chorus calling for an unconditional ceasefire provoked a disproportionate - the word of the moment - allergic reaction among those Labour MPs already sensitised by the anti-war, anti-American and anti-Israel infection. Kitty Ussher, the new Labour MP for Burnley, wrote in the New Statesman in August that "the only conclusion any right-minded person can draw by simply looking at the facts is that the Prime Minister thought it was OK for Muslim people to keep dying".

The other factor that weakened Blair was the cash-for-honours affair. The essential facts were known last year, when The Independent on Sunday broke the story that some of those nominated by Blair for peerages had secretly lent Labour money. But then in March, on the day Blair's Education Bill was carried in the Commons with Conservative support against another Labour rebellion, Jack Dromey, Labour's titular treasurer, turned against the Prime Minister.

He went on television to say he had not been consulted about the secret pre-election loans. The extent to which Brown knew about it in advance is unclear. But in one account, the Chancellor stormed out of a row with the Prime Minister about pensions the week before, saying: "You haven't heard the last of this peerages business."

Neither Brown nor Dromey could have expected what happened next, however. Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, decided to investigate the alleged sale of peerages on the basis of a press release put out by a Scottish National Party MP. There was no evidence that the obscure 1925 Act, which was intended to ban the taking of commission for personal gain from the sale of honours, had been broken. But the inquiry gained a media momentum of its own as a running "net is closing" story.

The political net was certainly closing on Blair, but the real cause of his sudden self-limiting ordinance was something else. Iraq and cash-for-honours were preconditions. The Lebanon and a Times interview, in which he seemed to accuse MPs of "obsessing" about the handover, were the triggers. But the real cause was the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader at the end of 2005. Or, rather, what became clear as 2006 progressed: that Cameron was as good as he seemed.

The new man's first scalp was that of Charles Kennedy, forced to resign as Liberal Democrat leader in January. The Lib Dems had been spooked by Cameron's theft of their two most distinctive issues, greenery and civil liberties. So they got rid of one unimpressive leader and replaced him with someone even less suited to the task - a blinking and uncertain Sir Menzies Campbell. Cameron's arrival was the first time since 1945 that the Tories had undergone a fundamental revamp to match a Labour government that seemed to be in tune with the times. The tectonic plates of opinion-poll trends shifted, with the Tories leading Labour throughout 2006 and the Liberal Democrats drifting. This was the big change that put the frighteners on Labour MPs and made the coup of 7 September inevitable.

Blair had tried to welcome Cameron's shift on to New Labour ground and attempted to tease out the contradictions of some New Tory positions. But Labour MPs could hardly be expected to rally behind him as the man to lead the fightback when it was Brown who would lead them into the next election.

The long-standing weaknesses of Blair's position began to tell against him, as we always knew they would. The Labour Party had never warmed to him, or understood him or really believed in much of what he tried to do. They tolerated him - even respected and admired him - as a brilliant vote-getter who allowed some moderately social-democratic things to be done behind all the headline-grabbing stuff about being horrid to asylum-seekers. But when the magic of opinion-poll leads wore off, they had no further use for him and - whatever their doubts about Brown - they wanted to move on.

That, then, is more or less the end of the Blair story. His only allies in the few months that remain to him are people's low expectations of his efforts to advance negotiations in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The coming year belongs to Gordon Brown, even before the formal coronation. Indeed, it has belonged to him since 7 September, yet he has done little with it.

The pre-Budget report early this month was an ideal opportunity for Brown to set out a new direction - and he fumbled it with an utterly characteristic Brownian lack of clarity. Passing up the chance of a simple green message - pre-empting Cameron's idea of green taxes on pollution paying for tax cuts on environmental friendliness - he reverted to education. But with some complicated message about new school buildings that sounded as if it was something that had already been announced a hundred times.

The real story of 2006, then, was that it was David Cameron's year. If Gordon Brown is not able to confound everything that we know about him, 2007 will belong to Cameron, too.

What now for David Cameron?

A year ago David Cameron told Conservatives it was time to "be the change". And he has been. But if 2006 was a year of wonderful image-making, good fortune and fair progress, 2007 will test the new Conservative leader's nerve, not just showcase his charisma.

The first challenges are May elections to councils and the devolved bodies of Wales and Scotland. It is the Scottish Nationalists, not the Tories, who are rampant north of the border. The local election results, too, are likely to lay bare the limits of Cameron's appeal north of the M4.

But it is the accession of Gordon Brown to the Labour leadership that will provide the sternest test. The wilier practitioners of the political arts know that for months, perhaps years, the airwaves and the newspapers will be filled with the freshly minted coinage of the "new Gordon Brown government" with "new policies" and "new directions". How will Cameron cope when the mantle of newness is removed from his shoulders? He will still have his relative youth, but what if the Liberal Democrats conclude that they cannot make progress with their current leader and replace him with someone younger even than Cameron?

It is certain that the Tory leader will not enter the next election as the newest leader of a political party, and it is quite possible he will not be the youngest either.

Cameron has shown a steady hand in managing his party. He has driven through reforms that are slowly ensuring the next intake of Tory MPs will be more representative and he has dispatched a number of internal enemies. But maintaining discipline through Brown's honeymoon will be much more difficult. The calls for Cameron to change direction will grow louder with every reduction in the Tories' narrow poll lead over Labour.

Brown, meanwhile, will be doing all he can to bounce the Tory leader from his positions so that he present him as weak. No wonder Cameron has signalled that he intends to show "more grit" in the year ahead. He will unveil more policy, seek to toughen his image on crime and continue to reform his party. On a personal note, 2007 will be the year that Cameron and his family finally move into their new house. Its famous wind turbine will be whirling through the storms ahead.