Focus: Part one - Politics

Game over?
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The Independent Online

Two months ago, two propositions about politics in 2004 could be treated as near certainties. One was that having completed its first seven years in power, Labour could look forward confidently to the next seven. The other was that for most of those years, Tony Blair would be Prime Minister. Neither proposition is so certain now.

Since the ruthless removal of Iain Duncan Smith, there has been a glimmer of a possibility that the Conservatives could be back as serious contenders for power. The idea of Duncan Smith entering Downing Street as prime minister was a joke, but the notion of Michael Howard as prime minister is no laughing matter.

Past experience suggests that victory comes to the opposition after a series of opinion polls and local election results which show that the public has firmly made up its mind to be shot of the government. If Labour is doomed - and that is still a big "if" - 2004 is the year when the rot will set in, and by next Christmas Mr Howard will have taken on the stature of a prospective national leader.

What makes this a remote prospect is that, despite rises in national and local taxes, the economy is in relatively good shape. People have grown used to secure employment, rising incomes and low inflation. As long as they continue to enjoy these comforts, they probably will not risk throwing the Government out.

However, it is now almost certain that the Conservatives will start to close the gap opened up by Labour in the 1990s, so that even if the Government survives, a lot of Labour MPs will go. This will be the year when many of them, in those marginal, middle-class seats Labour captured for the first time in 1997, suspect that the end is nigh. Some will react by redoubling their loyalty to the party leader, on the grounds that divisions within the party cost votes. Others may calculate that they are finished anyway, and will slip beyond the control of the whips, as large number of Tory MPs did in the dying days of John Major's administration. The increasing volatility of the Parliamentary Labour Party is the main reason that people now wonder whether Tony Blair will last the year. There are four hurdles ahead that we already know about, all before the summer break.

In mid-January, Lord Hutton will publish the results of his long inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the suicide of the government scientist David Kelly. It is possible, though not very likely, that he will criticise the Prime Minister.

Later in the same month, MPs will vote on proposed legislation to introduce higher tuition fees for students, varying from course to course and university to university. So many Labour MPs have questioned the wisdom of this idea that Mr Blair appears to be heading for the worst defeat any prime minister has suffered in a generation.

Yet even if he loses this major piece of legislation, Mr Blair will not automatically be removed from office. If the Conservatives call a vote of no confidence in the Government, Labour MPs will rally to prevent an election. But in the longer term, Mr Blair would wonder at the point of being in office if he cannot get his proposals for reforming the public sector past a rebellious Labour Party.

Other identifiable points on the political calendar are the local government elections in May, followed in June by elections for the London Mayor and Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament. Labour is likely to lose ground in all of these contests. That is serious for Mr Blair if, and only if, the scale of losses is so great that they cost him his reputation as the leader who knows how to deliver the vote.

A secondary reason for wondering if 2004 will be Mr Blair's last year in office is his health. His father, Leo, was incapacitated by a stroke brought on by overwork at the age of 40. Last October, the Prime Minister was rushed to Hammersmith Hospital, west London, with a heart problem, which was diagnosed as supraventricular tachycardia. This is a non-threatening heart-rhythm disturbance caused by rapid electrical activity in the upper parts of the heart. The heart goes from beating at a normal resting pulse of about 70 beats per minute to 140 - 240. Alarming though this is, the condition is not dangerous. Mr Blair's staff dismissed it as a one-off. But then, mysteriously, it emerged that Bill Clinton and the Queen had both known that Blair had a heart condition, implying that there may be more to this than we were originally told. A little over a month after this scare, there was another, when Mr Blair was struck down by stomach pains. The doctor initially suspected appendicitis, but this was ruled out. The condition was never fully explained.

However, these incidents may well turn out in the long run to be nothing more than passing scares. Tony Blair is only 50 years old, and fit, which suggests that he has decades of active life ahead, and his close associates insist that he is determined to go on. If so, that will be a disappointment for his brooding Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who had a triumphant year, politically and personally. He has a new baby son, and in Parliament he has pressed all the right buttons to give himself authority in the Labour Party. Just once, on the day he returned from paternity leave, the mask slipped and he became engaged in a public dispute with the Prime Minister, over the trivial question of whether he should have a seat on Labour's national executive.

For the rest of the year, Mr Brown was discreet in his disloyalty, opposing unpopular measure such as tuition fees without saying anything in public which could be construed as disloyal. For the Chancellor, 2004 will be year when his ultimate ambition is fulfilled - or not, as the case may be.

Watch out for...

Michael Howard: the new Conservative leader has made an impressive start but can he capitalise on Mr Blair's misfortunes?

Gordon Brown: attracting support of disenchanted Labour MPs but whether he gets the top job is largely out of his hands.

Lord Hutton: could decide the Prime Minister's fate. His report on the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly is published in two weeks.