Alan Watkins: All Mr Blair's difficulties, and those of his party, derive from his failure to be straight

'The Sun' told us a giant had been brought down by a tribe of pygmies
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The Independent Online

There is not going to be a general election next year or the one afterwards, unless either Mr Tony Blair or his successor has a rush of blood to the brain. Such things have been known to happen - Stanley Baldwin in 1923 was a case in point - but I cannot see Mr Blair or Mr Gordon Brown, or whoever it turns out to be, doing anything foolish in 2007. Instead, we have the conditions necessary for the election without the promise of one.

The Government is in a state of paralysis, not knowing who or what is likely to come next. The civil servants do not know whom to obey or what is expected of them.

It is the way they usually behave in the six-month spell before an election. But the only election on offer is that of Mr Brown or, conceivably, of Dr John Reid. For something over half a year, no one will be able to talk sensibly about anything else.

This fine mess is solely the responsibility of Mr Blair. He has no one else to blame. To climb out of the hole in which he found himself because of his unpopularity, he insisted on believing two impossible things before breakfast. One was that he was to serve a "full term" after 2005. The other was that he was to depart while leaving ample time for his successor to play himself in to No 10. These propositions could not both be true simultaneously.

All else follows from this contradiction. The peasants' revolt, the political humiliation, the lachrymose farewell, the term as the Archie Rice of the People's Party, but mendaciously combined with romanticism - everything derived from his failure to be straight. And Mr Blair is still not being completely straight about the precise date of his leaving.

Mr Rupert Murdoch's chief cheerleader, The Sun, told us last Wednesday that a giant had been brought down by a tribe of pygmies and that we should not look on his like again - likening his departure to that of Margaret Thatcher. But Mr Blair had promised to go, at some date of his own choosing, as Lady Thatcher had not promised: quite the reverse, in fact.

The logic of The Sun's position should be to transfer its affections from Mr Blair to Mr David Cameron. Mr Murdoch's general allegiance, however, is unlikely to change, not yet, anyway: not only because Mr Cameron has appeared indecisive, but also because Mr Brown retains the regard of Mr Murdoch's man-of-business, Mr Irwin Stelzer, who contributes frequently to the public prints.

From his appearances at the conference and throughout the summer, Dr Reid should be an even more favoured son at The Sun than Mr Brown could ever be. I first came across the doctor in Annie's Bar in the Commons after 1987. In those days, he drank a fair amount, as he no longer does, and he had read a few books in his time, about which he was only too keen to let you know. He remained an affable and entertaining character, as I am sure he still is, in private.

His public face is now of Murdochian populism. Just as significant as Dr Reid's enthusiastically received speech on Thursday was the poll conducted by Newsnight earlier in the week. A United States pollster, hired for the occasion, conducted a 30-strong seminar of the London proletariat.

They were clearly a rough lot and came out overwhelmingly for the roughest candidate, with Mr Brown nowhere in the betting. One curious contradiction of the pollster's findings - as has happened with polls generally - was that, while the sample objected to Mr Brown's Scottishness, they welcomed the Glaswegian Dr Reid as a possible saviour of the nation.

Dr Reid is still making up his mind - or so he says. It is a commonplace of commentary that there will be, at the most, three candidates, with Mr John McDonnell as either the second or the third candidate, if he can secure enough nominations from his fellow-members.

In 1976, after Harold Wilson resigned, there were six of them, with Michael Foot ahead on the first ballot, and James Callaghan the winner. In 1980, Denis Healey led on the first ballot, but Mr Foot won. In 1981, the system was changed to an electoral college, which my late friend Jeff Thomas, the member for Abertillery, described as an electoral comprehensive.

In 1993, the system, which had produced Neil Kinnock and John Smith, changed again. The ratio was altered from 40:30:30, with the unions predominating, to a third each. Moreover, one member, one vote was introduced for the constituencies and the unions alike.

Am I - are we - a little too trusting in these matters? I sometimes wonder. At the conference, and long before, the comrades were predicting that the unions had the contest "sewn up" for Mr Brown. But if the reforms introduced by Mr Smith and John Prescott in 1993 had any effect, levy-paying trade unionists would cast their votes as unfettered individuals. I am very doubtful about whether this happens in practice.

The other post-1980 change is that the election is conducted by the alternative vote rather than by the exhaustive ballot. With the latter, when the vote was by members alone, the bottom candidate or candidates dropped out until the winner had half or more.

With the alternative vote, and the electoral college voting, the voter marks the paper I, II, III... The sacred text, which is quite difficult to get hold of, goes: "The votes apportioned... shall be totalled and the candidate receiving more than half of the votes so apportioned shall be declared elected. If no candidate reaches this total on the first ballot, further ballots shall be held on an elimination basis. The redistribution of votes shall be according to preferences indicated on the ballot paper."

The party has been lucky ever since the new system of an extra-parliamentary system was introduced after 1980, though I preferred the older procedure of the Parliamentary Party. But not once - not over Kinnock, Smith or Blair - was any section of the electoral college at odds with another section.

Nor, in the final agglomeration, did the successful candidate fail to win over half on the first count. My guess is that Mr Brown will win his 50 per cent too, on first preferences alone. There will be no need to redistribute preferences.

On the wider electoral question, however, I detect a rustle in the undergrowth. Of the enthusiasts for the alternative vote, Mr Peter Mandelson is exiled to Brussels, and Mr Robin Cook is dead. Only Mr Peter Hain remains a true believer. But Mr Jack Straw is prepared to look at the question again, as are other ministers. The Government lives in uncomfortable and unpredictable times. The self-confidence on display on the platform was left behind in the hall. It was a very odd conference indeed.

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