Focus: Can he <i>really</i> last the distance?

Tony Blair wants to beat Margaret Thatcher's record as the longest-serving Prime Minister of modern times. Andy McSmith reports on backbench rebellion and the many other hurdles he will have to jump to make it
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Indy Politics

The Oscar-winning actress turned MP looked the Prime Minister in the eye and said: "In the election campaign I wasn't fighting the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. I was fighting you. I literally had hundreds of my constituents, who were Labour all their lives, saying they're not going to vote Labour as long as you're there."

The Oscar-winning actress turned MP looked the Prime Minister in the eye and said: "In the election campaign I wasn't fighting the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. I was fighting you. I literally had hundreds of my constituents, who were Labour all their lives, saying they're not going to vote Labour as long as you're there."

Glenda Jackson had a majority of more than 13,000 when she became MP for Hampstead and Highgate eight years ago. At the last election that was cut to 3,729. Ms Jackson blames Mr Blair. The former actress took centre stage when the Prime Minister faced his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party at a heated meeting last Wednesday.

Almost 400 people crammed into a room designed to seat fewer than 200, in an upper corridor of the House of Commons. Many of them want Mr Blair to resign and make way immediately for his long-serving understudy, Gordon Brown. MPs, peers and advisers were packed in so tightly that no one could move their arms without digging an elbow into their neighbour. The last few MPs to turn up were locked out by the police who guarded the doors. The corridor outside was choked with waiting journalists.

Occasions like these are often less dramatic than their build-up. What commonly happens is that the Prime Minister's critics snipe at him through newspaper columns and in television studios, but when the man himself puts in an appearance, they are silenced by the dead weight of loyal MPs around them.

Not this time. The rebels were fired up and ready to attack. Frank Dobson, a former health secretary, praised the Prime Minister's past achievements, including his personal contribution to the 1997 landslide, before delivering the same message as Glenda Jackson: that Mr Blair is becoming a vote-loser. It is likely he would have heard the same message from the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who had his hand up to speak. He was not called. Ann Clywd, who was chairing the meeting, said later that she simply could not see him in the crush.

One of the new MPs, standing at the back, found it all very strange. "I'm just elated because I'm here, and we won, and here's this figure who has led us to victory for the third time - something that has never happened before in the history of our party - and there are these people telling him he has got to resign!" The Prime Minister himself talked as if he did not want to provoke his critics, but did not intend to give ground either. As expected, he called for loyalty - though for some unexplained reason, he directed this call at the party's former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, who retired from front-line politics 13 years ago.

"You gave me my first job on the front bench, Roy, and I was loyal through three election defeats. Now that we have won three elections, aren't I entitled to a little of that loyalty?" he asked. It was a doomed appeal, not only because Lord Hattersley was not in the room to hear it, but because the "rebels" see themselves as deeply loyal, but their loyalty is not directed at prolonging Tony Blair's time in office. "My loyalty is to the Labour Party and the idea - the idea of equality," Lord Hattersley said later.

Mr Blair also gave heart to those who want him out when he did not repeat his formula that he intends to serve a "full Parliament", but talked about giving his successor time to get settled in before a general election.

His more optimistic supporters hope the confrontation has been "cathartic". The theory is that now the rebels know that Mr Blair will resign at a time of his choosing, they may accept a period of calm in which the Prime Minister can push ahead with public service reform and prepare for an orderly handover. "I don't think it's even in Gordon Brown's interest for the handover to happen now," a leading Blairite said. "This could well be a long Parliament, so we could be looking at a general election in 2010 rather than 2009. You want to fight the general election as the new Prime Minister, not as the Prime Minister who has been there all the time that the Government is going through mid-term unpopularity. I think Tony has got at least three more years if he wants to stay that long."

One big item pencilled into the parliamentary calendar is the referendum Mr Blair promised to hold on whether to sign up to the EU constitution. He may be rescued from this by the French, who are holding a referendum two weeks today, or the Poles, who have one in October. If they reject it, the constitution may have to be scrapped anyway. If not, the UK will have to hold a referendum on it next summer, with a high risk that the Government will lose.

Another Blair loyalist said: "Tony is actually honourable. He will stay around to sweep up the shit, including the referendum, because he is thinking about his legacy. He doesn't want to leave Gordon with a mess to clear up."

But it is quite likely that the number of MPs who want the Prime Minister to stay that long would be outnumbered by those who want a quick handover. One rebel who has counted heads claims that "Brownies" now outnumber "Blairites" by three to one. Figures like those need a large health warning attached, because of the great number who are ambiguous about when they want the handover to happen, so long as it is done in a way that does not damage the Government. Also, the Prime Minister's opponents are not a unified group. Some are not Gordon Brown supporters in any real sense, because they oppose the whole New Labour project of which the Chancellor is the co-architect, and may put up a candidate against him when the leadership contest comes about. The ideological left has a relatively small presence among MPs, though, and is less dangerous to Tony Blair than those in the centre, such as Robin Cook, who are concerned about how the total Labour vote has fallen by four million in eight years, and how issues such as the Iraq war have caused a large part of the active party membership to drift away. Such people fear three more years of a Blair leadership will exacerbate the problem. Losing hundreds of councillors next May would knock another gaping hole in Labour's activist base. This is why leading rebels want Mr Blair to go within a year.

If the Prime Minister refuses to resign, there is just one chance each year to force him out - at the annual Labour conference. John Austin, a left-wing MP, hinted at this last week when he talked about running as a "stalking horse" against the Prime Minister. For Mr Blair, September - when conference takes place - is the most dangerous month. If he is still in office in October, it is impossible to force him out until autumn 2006.

Some publicity has been given to a clause in the Labour Party rule book which sets a high hurdle for the likes of John Austin. He would need to be nominated by at least 72 Labour MPs - a figure well beyond Mr Austin's reach.

Even if all the signatures were to be gathered for a better-known candidate than Mr Austin, it would still be possible for Mr Blair's supporters in the unions and the constituencies to come to his rescue at conference. The device is rule 4B.2d (ii): "When the Parliamentary Labour Party is in government and the leader [is] Prime Minister, an election shall proceed only if requested by a majority of party conference on a card vote." So, unless the party conference can be persuaded to sack their leader, there can be no election except when Mr Blair chooses to start one.

The rebels say talking about a direct challenge is irrelevant. This is the "nuclear option". Instead they plan what one called "legislative trench warfare", using their votes in Parliament to limit the Prime Minister's power. Last year, rebel MPs came within five votes of defeating Mr Blair's proposal for variable tuition fees for students. Now, they claim, the numbers have shifted in their favour.

Mr Blair, meanwhile, is drawing up radical plans to drive forward public service reform, with 40 government bills likely to be trailed in Tuesday's Queen's Speech. He wants more NHS patients treated by private companies, more businessmen involved in running state schools, fewer teenagers on the streets causing trouble, fewer people drawing incapacity benefit, and tighter immigration controls.

For critics such as Glenda Jackson, a strategy aimed at taking votes off the Tories can only exacerbate problems with Labour's natural supporters. She accuses the Prime Minister of playing Russian roulette with the party. But Mr Blair is convinced Labour must keep proving itself as the party of reform to secure the large number of seats which were held with very small majorities this time. It is also a matter of what the history books will say about his years in office. He wants to be remembered as a great reforming Prime Minister. He could, however, be fated to be the Labour leader who won elections, but lost his party.

HOW OTHER LEADERS FARED

Tony Blair can be comforted by the knowledge that the Labour Party usually allows its leaders to resign with dignity.

Harold Wilson, leader 1963-76

Survived several real or imagined plots. Resigned when under no pressure to go.

James Callaghan, leader 1976-80

Lost election, stayed on unchallenged for a year. Resigned before rule change to allow a challenge.

Michael Foot, leader 1980-83

Suffered worst election defeat since the war. Resigned honourably despite no real pressure to do so.

Neil Kinnock, leader 1983-92

Led party through one election defeat, saw off challenge by Tony Benn, resigned after second defeat at polls.

John Smith, leader 1992-94

Died suddenly, just as Labour's political recovery was beginning.

The same cannot be said of the Conservative Party, which tends to get rid of those it no longer wants.

Edward Heath, leader 1965-75

Forced out after narrowly losing two elections. Beaten in leadership contest.

Margaret Thatcher, leader 1975-90

Won three general elections, survived challenge by Michael Heseltine, but told by her Cabinet to quit.

John Major, leader 1990-97

Survived a leadership challenge, then resigned rather than lose another after 1997 election.

William Hague, leader 1997-2001

Resigned after losing an election, although could have stayed on.

Iain Duncan Smith, leader 2001-03

Elected by party members. Sacked by MPs before he could lose an election.

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