Blair's big chance of power ... but not yet

The Unionists could mortally wound the Tories, but that would not be to Labour's advantage now

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Pink-faced and excited, gossip scampers through the corridors of Westminster. An early general election is on the cards. This time, the Ulster Unionists are really angry, picking candidates, ready to bring the House down. The Tory rebels sympathise. So, with the Major government up to its grin in the sticky stuff, is this Labour's great chance? Well ... no. The chances of a snap election are remote - and would be nil if we were able to assume that everyone involved intended to act logically.

But, on the other hand ... yes. There is a situation developing which is unstable enough to offer Tony Blair rich opportunities and may radically change the politics of the year ahead. Before explaining why, though, let us deal with the unlikeliness of ageneral election this spring.

Labour has already promised not to bring down John Major on a vote against the Irish peace process. That is the right position both morally and tactically (which is convenient). Imagine how it would look for a party that has been relentlessly attacking the Tories for elevating party advantage over national interest, then to connive in the destruction of the Ulster talks to force an early election. Brothers - sisters - this would look bad. In fact, it would look so bad it might allow Major to win an election.

Second, Orange Man speak with forked tongue. The Ulster Unionists' gentle wooing of Labour, which is real enough, and the Labour Party's watering down of its former enthusiasm for a united Ireland, which is also real enough, does not add up to full political intercourse.

The Unionists know that, despite the carefully balanced words of Mo Mowlem, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Labour is still "greener'' than the Tories. Were there to be a hung parliament in which the Ulster Unionist MPs held the balance of power, then clearly they would have a greater leverage. But having provoked an election, the Unionists would be unable to control the result, and might end up with a Labour or Lib-Lab landslide. All they are doing is flirting with Labour in the hope of scaring Conservative Central Office. As one puts it: "At the moment, Ulster says Mo. But in the end, Ulster still says No - to whoever is in power.''

Does this mean that all Unionist threats about an election should be disregarded? Not entirely. It is possible that they might provoke a general election out of sheer desperation, calculating that the uncertainty could break open the peace process, and return things to a more fluid (and dangerous) stage.

More likely, though, is the prospect of a year or more of guerrilla war in the Commons. Unless the Government backs down drastically on the framework document, then the Unionists have to have a political response ready for when it is published. And that has to be more than a quiet "tsk, tsk" from Jim Molyneaux.

The most obvious thing for them to do is to announce that they will not vote with the Major government. On most votes, they would abstain. Sometimes, perhaps, they would vote against. Night after night, the Tory whips would never know quite what was coming next.

That would make for a debilitating, grinding, authority-destroying year during which the Tory rebels (one of whom was lunching with Molyneaux yesterday) would exert even more influence. Such a new, sapping development would come at the cruellest moment, just when things had been looking brighter for the Major government. There would be little point in ministers even setting off for the intergovernmental talks on European Union. And the peace process would be in further danger.

Finally, given the average mortality of MPs, and the utter unlikelihood of the Government winning any by-elections, there is the prospect of Downing Street losing control over the final date for an election; by death or cock-up, they could be driven to the polls.

These are the circumstances in which governments can lose the will to live. I am running rather far ahead, but these are plausible outcomes after what has happened over the past few days, and they explain how intense the pressure will be on ministers to find some way of diluting and delaying the framework document. If it came to a choice between a slow parliamentary death, with lost vote succeeding lost vote, and the survival of the Government's peace initiative, which would ministers choose? Lord knows.

The opposition, meanwhile, would be able to sit back and support the peace process while wounding the administration in every other way it can; Paddy Ashdown's challenge over a single currency is an early example of what may become a regular event.

It's possible that such a guerrilla war would be better for the opposition than a sudden election now. In truth, and whatever its poll rating, Labour is still nothing like ready for government; it has a lot more work to do on its constitutional agenda. Robin Cook's important speech repositioning the party on the European Union last week was only the first step in the long march towards a coherent and fully worked out Labour agenda for the IGC. The tax problem hasn't been convincingly answered.

Labour thinking about education, about creating a welfare-to-work strategy, and about building a stronger civic society has a long way to go yet. And there is the urgent need to get the party through its Clause IV argument: Blair expects to meet around 20,000 activists over the next few weeks as he tries to sell New Labour to the party.

It would be entirely possible for none of the above to be accomplished, and for Labour to win the election none the less. What isn't credible is that Labour could fail to do the thinking now, win the election, and then go on to govern successfully. The old question confronts the party: does it want to change the country; or merely to win its allotted one-in-every-five general election victories?

The problems over Scottish devolution at the beginning of the year raised the suspicion among many observers that Labour was not properly organised yet to think through, control and accomplish what it has to do. Time is short; and Blair can't do it all on chutzpah.

So for the two leaders, Ulster Unionist outrage means opposite things. For Major it would oblige him to hunker down, to live even more from day to day, and to forget the idea that any radical legislation could pass. For Blair, it would mean the need further to speed up the pace of change in the party, while he was treated ever more aggressively and seriously as the prime-minister-in-waiting.

It would be a testing process, sharpening judgements on Blair and hardening the personal tensions inside the Major administration as it becomes unhealthily obsessed by its own mortality. All this is starting to look quite likely. The Ulster Unionists maybe isolated and surrounded; but they still know a thing or two about how the parliamentary game can be played.

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