Adrian Hamilton: Don't bet on Blair staying around much longer

For years he's been detached from his party. Now he seems detached from his job
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The Independent Online

The thought is prompted not by the latest events in Basra. If anything, these would tend to delay his departure for fear of looking as if he is skulking out under a darkening Iraqi cloud. But there is something about his manner, his casualness indeed, since his return from holiday that makes one suspect that he is no longer engaged.

He's still as articulate as ever, of course. His speeches in New York, his trip to China and India, his interviews since, all betray the usual Blair self-confidence. But it's the tone that has changed. And tone, as we have all come to learn in Tony's case, is all.

He proclaims debt relief and increased aid, he lectures on tougher measures to meet the new world of terror, he declares his ambition radically to reform public services. But none of it is said with much conviction, or at least with a sense of much concern about the result.

His now-famous comment about the BBC to Rupert Murdoch seems par for the course. A careful politician wouldn't have said it, knowing that it would be repeated in public. But, while he is mildly irritated that it has caused a small fuss, I don't believe that Blair minds very much. It proves his American loyalties and the direction of his future.

It's not that he seems wearied of power or worn down by the strains it brings. Just the opposite. He appears positively refreshed by his unusually long holiday. It's just that you feel that if it all ended tomorrow he wouldn't mind too much, that out there in Barbados he reached some form of conclusion or contract with himself.

At the same time, there is every evidence of changing winds in government. The Brown succession has become fully entrenched in minds and planning. Blair still finds it difficult in interviews to spell it out loud, or pronounce the name, but there's no real attempt to suggest there is any doubt about the hand-over. In terms of perception, it's already taking place.

Nor is there any real effort to by the Prime Minister to keep around himself a solid phalanx of loyalists, as you would expect of a leader wanting to stay on several years and anxious to stop any premature drift to his successor. There's talk of a reshuffle, mention of David Blunkett, but no one in government thinks of it in terms any longer of Blairite versus Brownite. Even the most fervent Blairites in the system are openly seeking to make terms with the Chancellor and offer their assistance in the hand-over.

Now I know that, with Blair, appearances can't be trusted. Just ask Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister hasn't actually said anything or made any move that would indicate the date of his departure. He's not the sort of man to plan long or to close down his options. But he hasn't done anything to stop the drift, either.

All this endless comment on his concern for his legacy, his determination to find a place in history, seems to me to misunderstand the man. He's got the record that he really wants, winning three elections in a row, and has already foregone the chance of a fourth. Carrying on to beat Maggie's record in power may be vaguely attractive, but not overwhelmingly so. As for his legacy, well that's for politicians like Gordon Brown, who care that their record be judged in terms of "achievement". Blair is not that kind of Scot.

And then there are the mechanics of power. Modern governments are not so different from mediaeval courts. They run on a bureaucracy that reads the runes of who's in and who's out. Blair's whole style of government is a presidential one. That has its advantage when you have a premier fully engaged. But it equally has a disadvantage once his attention wanders or weakens. Then, without cabinet government to keep the system running, the system is forced to move its attention to the alternative sources of power.

If Blair really wants to stay in place for another two or even three years, then - given his style - he would have to reassert his presidential authority by launching radical new initiatives from the centre. He would need a major reshuffle to put his own men in key positions to buttress his position. And, abroad, he would need to succour and prepare the alliances and moves to put him at the heart of Europe, or whatever he wants. It isn't happening.

Without it, the next few years can only be a heavy trudge in which the Prime Minister will be constantly at the mercy of events and of internal politicking.

For years Tony Blair has seemed curiously detached from his party. Now he seems equally detached from his job.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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