Blair 'full of fizz' as he launches his operation fightback

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Indy Politics

As he opened a Cabinet "political session" without civil servants present yesterday, Tony Blair told his ministers: "Let's put aside the froth of the past few days and get on with it."

According to ministers, there was no mention during the hour-long strategy session of the burning issue of the week for Labour MPs: how long will Mr Blair carry on as Prime Minister?

Despite the newspaper headlines calling his future into question, Mr Blair was in positive mode during a discussion about the Government's plans for the months ahead, "the fightback strategy" as some Downing Street insiders have decided to call it.

The Prime Minister was particularly enthusiastic about the importance of the "five-year plans" for education, health, transport and the Home Office, which are to be unveiled in June. One Cabinet minister said: "From the moment he opened his mouth, it was very clear he was completely focused on the long term and has a very clear sense of direction."

Another described Mr Blair as "full of fizz", adding: "He would hardly be talking like this, about where we will be in five years' time, if he was going to depart in five minutes."

The mood of the meeting belied the past 10 days of feverish speculation at Westminster over Mr Blair's future, since he announced his U-turn over a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution.

One insider said: "It was remarkably good given the headlines." There were even some joshing and jokes, with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and John Reid, the Health Secretary, acting as the two jesters in the Court of King Tony.

Most of the session was taken up by a discussion of Labour's campaign for "Super Thursday" on 10 June, when there will be elections for the European Parliament, local authorities and the London mayor. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, gave a presentation on his favourite theme, which has served Labour well at the last two general elections: the "dividing lines" between the Labour Party and the Tories.

The Cabinet agreed to fight a positive campaign on the ground of public services. Although Europe will feature, Labour will try to steer the debate towards "bread and butter" issues of more concern to the voters, such as the economy, health, education, crime and transport.

In private, ministers do not pretend that the talk about Mr Blair's future is a plot whipped up by the media. "There is a feeding frenzy, but the newspapers are only reacting to the gossip among Labour MPs," one said.

In public, ministers are rallying round to bolster Mr Blair's position. Mr Reid, a Blair loyalist, said yesterday that Mr Blair would serve a full third term as Prime Minister if he wins the next general election and dismissed speculation that he might stand down this year.

Mr Reid told BBC Radio 4: "Tony Blair will lead us into the next election and, God and the electorate willing, will serve a full third term as the leader of this party and this country. I have never been in any doubt about that."

Repeating what he said nine months ago, Mr Reid said: "There is a huge sign outside Downing Street that says 'no vacancy' and anyone who can't read it is very short sighted."

But most Labour MPs do not expect Mr Blair to serve a full third term. They believe that the Europe referendum would be a logical point of departure for him, whether Britain votes "yes" or "no". However, they also recognise that Mr Blair must promise to serve a full third term to avoid the charge of being a "lame duck" Prime Minister.

The downside is that if he served a full third term and remained in No 10 until 2010, Mr Blair would surpass Margaret Thatcher's tenancy of 11.5 years. He has previously suggested Baroness Thatcher stayed in power for too long.

However, Mr Reid said that should not influence his decisions as it was not comparing "like with like". The Health Secretary said: " From the second year of her prime ministership, Mrs Thatcher hit the record low support in the country and then at various time throughout it was in the same position.

"Tony Blair has led the Labour Party for 10 years. He is the most successful leader in history of any party since records began. We have been 84 months in power. For almost every one of those 84 months we have been in the lead."

Yesterday, the Tories sought to exploit the feverish speculation about Mr Blair's future. Liam Fox, the party's co-chairman, added: "It is the British people, not Tony Blair, who will decide whether he serves a third term.

"This latest display of arrogance will only distance him further from an electorate who already feel increasingly let down and disillusioned by a Prime Minister who they once trusted but no longer do."