'Blair must go' cry the PM's enemies. But they are doomed to stay in the wilderness

Despite his current unpopularity, with a general election looming the Labour party will stand fast behind its leader, writes Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

Steve McQueen's famous catchphrase from the 1973 film Papillon, about a man consigned to 30 years in a hellish penal colony for a murder he didn't commit, is: "I'm still here, you bastards!"

One can imagine the same cry emanating from Chequers as Tony Blair puts one heavy week behind him and steels himself for another.

There is no rest for the Prime Minister over the next three days, at least. Tomorrow he is involved in launching the Home Office's five-year plan, with its emphasis on tackling yob culture. On Tuesday, his government's strategy for transport is to be launched, but Mr Blair may have to excuse himself as he prepares for the Commons debate on the Butler Report and the Iraq war. The next day he will take questions in the Commons as usual, and the day after that he will give his monthly Downing Street press conference. In the midst of all this, he is hoping to fit in time to reshuffle his government.

No let-up, then, for the Prime Minister, who only recently seemed to be on the point of giving up the job. In the past week, the former Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler, has indicted him for taking the UK to war on the basis of claims that "went to the outer limits of the intelligence available". On Thursday, Labour voters in two safe seats stayed away from the ballot boxes in droves, causing swings exceeding 25 per cent from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. Proportionately, Labour's support fell further in Birmingham Hodge Hill, where they scored a narrow win, than in Leicester South, where the Liberal Democrats won.

In terms of the percentage swing, they were the seventh and eighth worst by-election results the party has had in 40 years. But like Papillon escaping from Devil's Island, Tony Blair is still here.

"We have come out intact," the Blairite Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell said yesterday. "In a way, that reveals the fundamental strength of the Government. What is [our] fundamental strength? It's actually that we are doing what people want. These are not by any stretch of the imagination satisfactory results , but what is very reassuring, given what we have been through and given that we have been in power for seven years, is that we can win a by-election at all. That isn't usual for a government that has been in power for so long."

In fact, the Conservatives did pull off the occasional by-election more than seven years after they came to power in 1979, their last being when William Hague won Richmond in February 1989.

But every precedent suggests that if the Conservatives are going to win the general election - probably less than a year away - they should be taking seats off Labour now, rather than seeing them go to the third party. In the mid 1970s, the Tories had no trouble storming "safe" Labour seats, including one in Birmingham almost identical to Hodge Hill. Two decades later, Labour was taking seats off the Tories on swings exceeding 20 per cent.

But last week, the Conservatives languished in third place in both contests, ramming home what many already knew in their hearts - that there is no realistic prospect that Sandra Howard will be measuring up the curtains in Downing Street next year. That makes it tougher for Michael Howard to maintain the discipline that he has managed to impose on his previously fractious party.

There is no thought to Howard's own position. Having disposed of Iain Duncan Smith last year, the Conservatives cannot tear down another leader now. But Howard's political strategy is already coming under fire from two directions. The more traditional Tories do not like the way he has tried to take the fight to Labour's corner by focusing on alternative policies for health and education. Last week, a furious letter to the Tory front bench from the vice-chairman of the Conservative Rural Action Group, Michael Ford, was leaked to the Tories' in-house newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. "All they do is bang on about health, education, and crime, and in the process they are neglecting the entire countryside," it complained.

Mr Howard heard similar complaints earlier this month when he spoke at the annual meeting of that temple of Thatcherite ideology, the Centre for Policy Studies. The first question from the floor accused him of not being clear enough in his opposition to the European Union. The second complained that there was no "clear water" between the Tories and Labour over Iraq. The third wanted higher defence spending.

Meanwhile, some on the liberal wing of the party complain that his emphasis on reducing the size of the state is out of date. And that the party is sorely missing big players such as William Hague and Francis Maude. One leading Tory described Howard as "an A-team leader with B-team support".

Outside Westminster there are people who remember Alastair Campbell's uncompromising call for "resignations at several levels" when the BBC was criticised by Lord Hutton. Mr Campbell had his way, and now that Lord Butler has gently but firmly criticised the Government, there are those who think that what was good for the BBC is good for the people behind the decision to go to war.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory Foreign Secretary, said both Mr Blair and new MI6 head John Scarlett should go: "The only people who have resigned because of this war so far are the editor of the Daily Mirror and the chairman and chief executive of the BBC. The person who actually took the country to war on a false premise, and those around him, continue as if nothing has happened. We have Tony Blair telling us he's taking responsibility, but it's purely a form of words. If the document produced by the JIC was so deeply flawed, then it is difficult to see why Mr Scarlett does not have to carry responsibility for those failures, too."

Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for Morecambe, does not have a track record as a persistent rebel, and did not oppose the decision to go to war, but last week she said: "The Prime Minister has been fatally damaged by that report. I think he has lost the trust of a large part of the British people and it is not something that is going to go away."

She is not the only Labour MP who thinks that Mr Blair's time is up, but she is one of a small minority. Now that the Prime Minister has told those closest to him that he is carrying on, and with a third successive general election in sight, those crying "Blair Must Go" sound like voices in the wilderness.

Leading article & Alan Watkins, page 24; Robin Cook, John Rentoul & Brian Cathcart, page 25