Blair: The clock is ticking for a 'deluded' and 'self-indulgent' PM clinging on to power

That's the portrait being painted by some of Tony Blair's closest cabinet colleagues, stung by a spin operation that has backfired spectacularly on a man with his eye on the history books. Francis Elliott reports
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair, appropriately enough, was showing off a death mask as the seal was being set on his own political demise.

The Prime Minister was taking a group of five Labour MPs on a 15-minute tour of Chequers as he passed the mask of Oliver Cromwell. This memento mori, one of the treasures of the estate, caught the Prime Minister's eye and he spent a little time examining it with the gaggle of backbenchers.

It is tempting to wonder whether he didn't reflect on his own political mortality as he met his predecessor's deathly gaze. Earlier that day he had given an interview to The Times, which he intended would draw a line under the speculation surrounding his future. But by the time he waved off the MPs it was clear that the briefing had backfired.

The newspaper was not intending, as he had hoped, to interpret his remark that he would not "go on and on" as a signal that he would go next year, he was told. Instead his refusal to set a date for his departure was being written as a defiant snub in a front-page story.

In a desperate attempt to repair the damage, Mr Blair began phoning newspaper editors, stressing the message that although he would not say it publicly he would leave Downing Street in 2007.

It was too late. As we report today, his interview is proving to be a catalyst to a rebellion that has now reached even Cabinet ministers neutral when it comes to making the choice between Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

It is in the gloomy halls of Balmoral that Mr Blair is reflecting on his botched briefing operation this weekend. The traditional late summer weekend visit to the Queen's Scottish home has not been a happy occasion for either hosts or guests in the past.

In previous years Cherie Blair has variously been castigated for wearing trouser suits, yawning while watching Highland games and, allegedly, calling the Princess Royal "that bitch". She is said to dislike particularly being woken by a skirl of the bagpipes, a Balmoral tradition.

And this year the piper who sounds the morning reveille is likely to sound more mournful than ever. What is the Prime Minister's mood at the start of the political season? Does he have the stomach for the fight ahead?

The Labour MPs who met him at Chequers on Thursday report that he was in good spirits. "He was relaxed, tanned and humorous - his usual self," said one. Another noticed that Mr Blair was looking a little trimmer than of late. But those watching a BBC interview recorded the same day, in which he announced so-called "foetal Asbos", draw rather different conclusions.

"On a physical level the warning lights on his dashboard are flashing," says Oliver James, the psychologist. "Everything is running on empty but he just can't see it. It's not surprising that he's got bags under his eyes and looks tense and uneasy; he needs rest."

Even his voice is beginning to let him down, says the respected expert. "It's very subtle but there is a definite sense of his delivery having less buoyancy to it. His very emphatic assertions are ringing less true."

Sir Cliff Richard said last week that he started lending the Blairs his villa in Barbados because the Prime Minister looked "dwindled and haggard".

And this break is likely to have been considerably less relaxing than previous vacations. The Prime Minister himself admitted that a constant stream of telephone calls about the Lebanon crisis interrupted the start of his Caribbean holiday. Halfway through, he came close to returning to Britain when news broke of the alleged airports terror plot. The holiday even ended stressfully when his son Euan was hospitalised. Not the ideal "get-away-from-it-all" he needed, perhaps.

But Mr Blair is terrified of being portrayed as having run out of steam. His blitz on social exclusion will go on all this week, with two major speeches and a press conference. He is also planning a tour of the Middle East, where he plans to "reinvigorate" the Palestinian peace process. It is a trip he wanted to take back in July, when he was stopped by George Bush. This humiliation was made public when their private conversation at the St Petersburg G8 summit was inadvertently broadcast.

Convinced by an impassioned plea by Sir David Manning, his most trusted foreign policy adviser and Britain's ambassador the US, Mr Blair has been subtly shifting ground on the Middle East.

He signalled to the party of MPs he saw on Thursday that he accepted that his refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire in the early stages of the conflict had been damaging. His rediscovery of the Palestinian viewpoint will help deflect some of the anger still simmering throughout Labour but the issue remains yet another drag on his standing among MPs.

However, it is the opinion polls that worry them most. August is usually a time when the governing party recovers support as a grateful nation forgets about politics. This year, however, the Conservatives under David Cameron have accelerated to a record lead despite a major anti-terror operation. (Law and order is one of the few issues on which voters prefer Labour.)

MPs in marginal seats are feeling the heat. One cabinet minister said: "There is now near-panic in sections of the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] about whether we can win the next election."

The feeling against Mr Blair has hardened over the summer in the sort of working-class seats that traditionally see the Opposition as led by a "chattering" elite. A number of MPs who belong to neither the Blair nor Brown faction report rumblings of grass-roots dissent. Then there are the serious financial worries facing the party. Its £26m overdraft - a direct consequence of the cash-for-peerages scandal - means that it is about to lay off 20 per cent of its staff. The irony of Mr Blair clinging on to his job as party workers lose theirs will be a bitter one.

The Prime Minister's ally David Blunkett said last week that Mr Blair could not give a leaving date because government would stop as everybody anticipated the end. But the truth is that the Prime Minister's authority has already all but drained away in Westminster and Whitehall. (A senior civil servant describes her dealings with No 10 as "occasional visits from Planet Blair".)

The Prime Minister indicated on Thursday he planned to tough out the party conference in Manchester, resisting calls to set a timetable for his departure. He wants to preserve what remains of his authority and create an opportunity for a challenge from a Blairite successor to Mr Brown, probably John Reid.

That decision now seems unsustainable. Not only does Mr Blair face a cabinet revolt next week, but he knows that a refusal to expand on his formula that he will leave "ample time" for his successor will trigger a public notice to quit from a sizeable part of his parliamentary party. Whether this is a round-robin letter or a delegation from senior figures hardly matters if the numbers are serious. If half the backbenchers say it's time for him to go, he will be gone.

The Prime Minister attempted to divide his critics in his Times interview into those who were worried about the polls and, "the largest part", those who want to return to Old Labour. It was this caricaturing of his opponents, as much as his refusal to set a date, that backfired.

Trying to damp the fires of rebellion, his friends now hint that he will set out a timetable ahead of the May local elections, where Labour is facing a wipe-out in some areas. "He will have more to say about timing - but not in the next few weeks," a close ally was quoted as saying yesterday. "He is conscious of the significance of those elections."

But a vague hint in April that he will go in the summer doesn't look likely to be enough for a party sensing its future ebb away. A growing number of Labour MPs want something "bankable" and they want it now.

The disillusionment reaches to the top as senior ministers dismiss Mr Blair's attempts to convey an impression of buzzing energy by announcing a raft of new policy initiatives.

"Tony is deluding himself if he thinks anyone is listening to all this stuff," said a cabinet minister. A former Blair loyalist was especially damning: "In the past Brown was the one who was more to blame but now Tony's in the wrong. He's being self-indulgent.

"This pantomime just has to end or we are going to lose the next election."

Additional reporting by Emily Gosden

The Contestants: In the blocks waiting for the starting gun

Tony Blair may be refusing to fire the starting gun, but that hasn't stopped would-be successors from getting into the blocks.

Gordon Brown, of course, has spent the past decade preparing for a contest that, it now seems inevitable, will be held in the next 12 months.

The left-winger John McDonnell has already made it clear he will deny Mr Brown a coronation by announcing his own decision to stand.

But the key question is whether the Chancellor will face a credible challenger. John Reid is considered the most likely to take him on.

Dr Reid has admirers in the media and has spent the past few years cultivating his support among MPs. He has steadied himself after a rocky start at the Home Office and won plaudits for his handling of last month's terror alert.

But few believe that he can build enough support to overhaul the runaway favourite, especially if he is identified as the Blairite candidate.

Such is Mr Brown's dominance that most would-be challengers have opted for a tilt at the second prize: the deputy leader position. Alan Johnson is probably ahead of a crowded field that includes Jack Straw, Peter Hain and Harriet Harman.

All will be setting out their stalls in Manchester at this year's party conference. Inevitably this will inevitably be dominated by the looming battle to lead Labour for the next generation.

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