Bloodied and unbowed: Blair's on the ropes, Brown's up for a fight. So can the PM roll with the punches?

The cabinet reshuffle was supposed to silence his critics after a bloody week of headlines. But now Gordon's entered the fray. By Francis Elliott and Marie Woolf
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Gordon Brown was spending this weekend in his Westminster flat with his pregnant wife and young son. His friends say he travels back to his second home in Scotland much less in recent months, preferring to keep close to the centre of power.

But then these are the crucial moments in the endgame of his 12-year power struggle with Tony Blair. At last, the prize is in sight.

In an unprecedented intervention, Mr Brown today calls on the Prime Minister to "set down" how Labour can be renewed, words that closely echo MPs' call to Mr Blair to set a timetable for his own departure.

After a bloody set of local election results and an even bloodier reshuffle, the gloves have at last come off. The Chancellor is poised to strike. The mood of backbench MPs - sullen since Christmas - has in recent days turned mutinous in the face of Mr Blair's refusal to say when, exactly, he plans to leave No 10.

A letter demanding an answer is circulating among backbenchers, with some suggesting as many as 50 are ready to sign. Tomorrow the PM will be told that he must name the day, when he addresses a routine meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

If this weekend was supposed to set to rest questions over his leadership, it is a gambit that has failed comprehensively. He will need all the luck he can muster to survive.

The red cotton wristband poking out from Mr Blair's sleeve as he leant across the despatch box on Wednesday signalled strength. It had been given to him eight days before at a Hindu temple and, perhaps mindful of the days ahead, he kept it.

At the time, observers speculated he thought it a charm against attacks over the release-of-foreign-prisoners fiasco. His squeeze of Charles Clarke's arm as he left Prime Minister's Questions encouraged the image of a man determined to defend his friends.

Two days later that band has taken on a very different caste: it has steeled the fist that bludgeoned the most brutal cabinet reshuffle in 20 years.

Mr Blair has been thinking about this reshuffle for a very long time - even as he lay in the sun in Egypt over the New Year, according to his closest aides.

At first the shake-up was intended to strengthen the impression that he wanted an orderly, stable transfer of power to Mr Brown. Indeed, the Chancellor and John Prescott are said to have been summoned to Chequers one weekend in early spring to discuss possible moves. But, as so many times before, trust between Prime Minister and Chancellor broke down, and Mr Blair became convinced that he needed a bold, aggressive shake-up.

Mr Clarke was, for a while, Downing Street's favoured candidate to take on the Chancellor in any leadership election. Even in the midst of the deportation fiasco one of Mr Blair's allies insisted he would stay. But, by Thursday evening, as the first of the local election results began to be fed back to No 10, Mr Blair called the Home Secretary in. It was a difficult interview. "Charles was offered defence, trade and industry and then transport," reports a former colleague. "He said he wanted to stay at the Home Office, Blair told him that wasn't possible and to go away and think about it overnight."

The next call was to Mr Prescott's home in Hull, where he was holed up with his wife, Pauline. Again Mr Blair broke the bad news - but gently. Mr Prescott's "nuclear option" is to resign as deputy leader of the Labour Party, thereby triggering a race that would inevitably turn into a leadership challenge by proxy.

Mr Prescott's friends are this weekend insisting that he has wanted to shed some of his responsibilities for a year. "He's knackered, absolutely on his knees," said one. He is, they say, determined to stay to referee the handover. "He's the only one with the whistle."

But with another raft of unseemly revelations about his sexual misdemeanours expected in today's tabloids, many wonder whether he has the credibility to hold the ring.

The third victim was Geoff Hoon. Quite what passed between Mr Blair and the man who stood by him during the Hutton inquiry is a matter of huge dispute. Mr Hoon left No 10 smiling broadly amid reports that he was to be a new cabinet-level minister for Europe. In fact, the job turned out to be a minister of state position in the Foreign Office - a pay cut of around £50,000.

The former defence secretary, now demoted twice, has been considering his position, uncertain whether he should stomach playing second fiddle to Margaret Beckett. On Saturday afternoon he decided to swallow his pride and play the "long game", hoping his career might take off again under a new leader.

Mr Hoon's replacement as Leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, looked bemused and miserable when he left Downing Street. The circumstances of his astonishing demotion - including the involvement of the White House - are dealt with overleaf.

Once Mr Blair had despatched his main victims, he set about the reshuffle with a speed and efficiency notably absent from previous shake-ups, even if more than one cabinet minister learnt of their new job on Sky News first.

One reports Mr Blair was "business-like", another that he was his "usual charming self". One minister left in post was told, "I'd love to promote you, I really would and next time I will." The minister left thinking there is most unlikely to be a "next time" for this Prime Minister.

By lunchtime it was, for the most part, over. Among the last appointments to be announced was David Miliband's as Secretary of State for the Environment. Mr Miliband, whom Mr Blair rates highly, was asked to stay behind after the previous day's Cabinet for a lengthy one-on-one with the PM, suggesting he will play a prominent role in the coming weeks as Downing Street fights to get back on the front foot.

Throughout the morning Mr Brown watched the reshuffle unfold on TV in his office. He was consulted about some key moves - that of Alistair Darling, for example - but left in the dark about others, including the appointment of ultra-Blairite Hazel Blears as Labour Party chair. Unlike Mr Prescott, who stayed in Downing Street to fight for his allies in the junior ranks, Mr Brown kept his distance.

Charles Clarke, meanwhile, returned for the last time to the Home Office where he said goodbye to colleagues. He recorded an interview in which he made clear he "didn't agree" with the decision to remove him. Privately he went much further, expressing his contempt for the way Mr Blair went about removing him. "Of course he's bitter," reports a friend.

When it came to scapegoats for the poll results, there was anger among MPs at the promotion of Margaret Hodge to the DTI. Ms Hodge is blamed by many for legitimising the BNP in a newspaper interview last month.

Martin Salter, a Parliamentary Labour Party shop steward, said: "It beggars belief that a Government seeking to renew itself after a torrid time at the polls should find room for the minister who bears the chief responsibility for letting the BNP genie out of the bottle."

While Mr Salter is keeping his powder dry on the question of Mr Blair's future, more and more of his colleagues are beginning to organise what amounts to a coup. As the appalling local results began to sink in, Labour MPs picked up the phone to colleagues to assess the damage. "Dire" and "humiliating" were two words repeated again and again as MPs emergedon Friday morning to find BNP and Tory councillors sitting in what had been solid Labour seats.

"It's a dire result. We came third in terms of the overall vote, worse than we did in 1983 - our worst general election result," said one former minister.

MPs were in little doubt that the blame lay at Mr Blair's door - that he was now a liability rather than an electoral asset. The cash for honours affair and scandals involving Mr Prescott and released foreign prisoners had persuaded many Labour activists to stay at home, rather than go out to deliver leaflets or even vote. One MP expressed fury that the Prime Minister had cost vital Labour votes by "mishandling" the foreign prisoners affair. "If he'd got rid of [Clarke] a week ago we'd have saved 100 seats," he said.

But MPs were furious that despite the warnings over several months Mr Blair was obtusely unwilling to address the abiding concerns about his leadership.

"It's fingers-in-ears time when it comes to Blair and the handover," said one minister. Most worrying for Mr Blair is that the ranks of the disaffected are no longer limited to the "usual suspects" but now include moderate figures such as Nick Raynsford. The former local government minister said: "I think it is in the interests of the party that a timetable is set which allows the successor to have a good period to get the right team in place."

The plot to oust the Prime Minister hatched in the New Year, when the decision was taken to strike immediately after the local elections, avoiding a damaging contest beforehand.

Three scenarios were drawn up. One was a stalking-horse challenge designed to destabilise Mr Blair and get him to quit. Several names were floated, including former transport minister Glenda Jackson, but MPs decided that risked harming the party. Besides they were worried they could not get the requisite 71 signatures for this to happen.

The second scenario discussed by the plotters was for the "men in grey suits" - a posse of very senior MPs - to go to Mr Blair and tell him his time was up and that he must set a date to quit.

But John Prescott - who was to head the delegation - lost his credibility. When the affair with his diary secretary emerged it became clear he no longer had the public respect or clout to deliver a fatal blow.

So a third plan had to be activated - this was a letter, designed to gain a critical mass of around 50 backbench signatures calling on Mr Blair to name the date of his transition swiftly. A draft version of this letter has been passed to The Independent on Sunday.

It sets out a clear ultimatum for Mr Blair to tell his MPs when he will go - and before MPs break for their summer holidays. It states: "A prerequisite of any orderly and democratic change is a clear timetable and transparent procedures. Unfortunately both are still absent from the process instigated by the Prime Minister 19 months ago. We therefore ask the NEC in consultation with the Prime Minister to lay out no later than the end of the current parliamentary term a clear timetable and procedure for the election of a new Labour Party leader."

Some in government fear that the rebels already have the 71 signatures required to trigger a leadership contest. But rebel organisers are less bullish - insisting the letter is still at an "embryonic stage". Indeed, they have included in it a let-out clause for Mr Blair, offering him the chance to fend off a challenge by announcing his own timetable. "We are still waiting to see what Blair will do," said one organiser.

Tomorrow, Labour MPs will send him a clear message at their weekly meeting in Parliament that they want him to go. On the agenda is an item that will allow MPs to discuss the local election results - the moment the rebels plan to strike.

In Downing Street, meanwhile, Blair aides are unfazed, insisting that any attempt to move the party to the left, in the face of a revived Tory threat, is "looney".

Instead Mr Blair is preparing to seize the initiative and press on with the policy agenda. All new ministers can expect a letter from him setting out his priorities for their role and his expectations for what they must deliver.

But unless Mr Blair names the date of his departure soon it is the Prime Minister who can expect to be handed a letter - telling him "time's up".