Adrian Hamilton: The national interest is the last thing on his mind

The area where he'll continue to have power is where he should not: foreign policy
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The Independent Online

The wonderful thing about politicians is the way that the more naked their ambition, the more they clothe it in terms of public interest. Blair couldn't announce a date for his departure, said his supporters, because power would immediately ebb away and government become impossible. The Prime Minister had to set a date, retorted the Brownites, because government would become increasingly confused and paralysed if he didn't. And now we have Mr Blair saying yesterday that he would set a date only when it was "in the interests of the country". We mustn't "treat the public as irrelevent", he added.

But that is precisely what he and his opponents have been doing. Whatever the public may think about the when and how the Prime Minister should and will be leaving, they are under no illusion that it has anything to do with them or the national interest. It's about personal power and self-opinion.

And there is no reason why the Government and the party can't keep up this state of play for months or even a year and more. The idea that government becomes impossible during periods of turmoil at the top misunderstands the way the system operates. The civil service has been expecting, and preparing, for a Brown takeover ever since Gus O'Donnell, permanent secretary at the Treasury, became cabinet secretary last year. The shock to the system would come if anyone else took over. When, or even how, change happens matters not.

Nor, despite Blair's fanciful call yesterday to be left free to institute the domestic policies "the public cares about", would it really matter if there were no new policies for the next year.

Blair's style of government is to shoot out ideas and policy initiatives from a small group within Number 10 and to leave the implementation to the departments without too much concern for the follow-through. Whatever happens from now, the ideas can, and no doubt will, keep coming. The implementation will be as strong or as weak as the individual ministers, and, above all, the Chancellor, want it to be. Only the volume of legislation may slow. But that may be no bad thing considering the poor quality of bills in the past few parliaments.

Equally fanciful is the notion put about by Blair's supporters that the party should undergo some great period of soul searching and philosophical debate before a new leader is chosen. Outside of communist dictatorships - and we all remember what happened with the Mao's Cultural Revolution - governments don't renew themselves in office through debate. They renew themselves by changes in personnel, as Macmillan did with his "night of the long knives". Blair threw away that opportunity through a succession of botched Cabinet reshuffles. It's too late now to change.

The one area in which the Prime Minister will continue to exercise untrammelled power is the one area where he should not - and that is foreign policy. It is quite extraordinary that the issue that has created the greatest divisions in the public and aroused the most disquiet among Labour MPs, Britain's policy towards the Middle East and the relationship with the US, should find no echo at all in the to-and-froing of statements in this row.

In all the suggested areas which the leadership contenders might debate, foreign policy hasn't figured at all. But ask MPs what has most disturbed them in recentmonths and turned them against their Prime Minister, they will answer: Lebanon and what that has revealed about Blair's subservience to Bush.

So what is Blair most likely to do now that he is visibly losing power? It will be to strut the world stage in an effort to show that he still has great projects in his mind, is still needed in the world and still regarded as a statesman of significance.

He is at it already with his imminent trip to the Middle East, a visit entirely pointless in practical terms so long as Blair toes the Washington line and Bush continues to give total support to Israel.

All this would not matter too much if it was confined to words and posturing. Outside of Uzbekistan and Myanmar, most of the world has already marked Blair as a man on his way out. The US and European press has been categorising him as such for months.

But should Bush decide to go for broke by bombing Iran, or Prime Minister Olmert do something dramatic to restore his fallen ratings, or events in Afghanistan or Iraq take a turn for the worse, what and who is to stop Blair tamely joining in the wilder reaches of Washington's madness or, worse, making his own great gesture in search of his place in history? Not, on this week's showing, either his party, his Cabinet colleagues, his Foreign Secretary or his likely successor.