Alan Watkins: Enter Prime Minister Heep, ever so humbly

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The Independent Online

A week ago, I wrote here that Mr Tony Blair did not show any contrition. Nor did he. But that was then: now is now. With that ability of his to change his act in accordance with the requirements of the audience, he has clearly decided that a display of the most ostentatious modesty is what is needed now.

A week ago, I wrote here that Mr Tony Blair did not show any contrition. Nor did he. But that was then: now is now. With that ability of his to change his act in accordance with the requirements of the audience, he has clearly decided that a display of the most ostentatious modesty is what is needed now.

From his appearance at the Sedgefield count, where he appeared on the verge of a manly tear while listening to the opponent whose son had been killed in Iraq, through his speech at the Trimdon Labour Club, where he stressed the importance of listening and learning, to his remarks after seeing the Queen on Friday morning, where he said much the same sort of thing, he has been emulating Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. He is being so very humble.

On the last occasion, by the way, he told us that Her Majesty had asked him to form a government. I do not want to be pedantic, but she already has a government, headed by Mr Blair, with all ministers in position. No doubt the Queen complimented Mr Blair in suitable terms on his re-election; while Mr Blair, for his part, informed her of various changes which he had in mind, such as that Mr David Blunkett, having paid his debt to society, would shortly resume his former place among the elders of the chapel.

It may be that Mr Blair also told her of his resolve to be humble. It was, after all, what he said long ago when, in a phrase redolent of Mr Alastair Campbell, he descibed Labour as the servants of the people, not the masters. Mr Gordon Brown has been saying the same, in virtually identical words.

Oddly enough, I believe Mr Blair, at any rate, is telling the truth. When Mr Michael Howard called him a liar during the campaign, he was, irrespective of whether he was making a political mistake, being too crude, not so much in the sense that he was breaching the conventions of polite society as that he was paying insufficient attention to the complexities of the Prime Minister's character.

Thus I have no doubt that he genuinely thought that there were all manner of dreadful weapons in Iraq and that this, moreover, provided the reason we were invading that unhappy country; even though, with another part of his mind, he knew perfectly well that the true reason was that he had given his word to Mr George Bush to this effect. Likewise, anyone who heard him, some years ago now, explaining to an audience on Question Time (more deferential on that occasion than it was during the recent campaign) about how he had voted for the abolition of foxhunting but had been frustrated by the House of Lords must have been struck by the Prime Minister's ability to believe what he wanted to believe: for he had done no such thing, and the Lords had not then got round to considering the matter.

It is not so much that he is untruthful as that he has practised believing six impossible things before breakfast. He is a romancer. Mr Blair has chosen to regard Friday's result, certainly not as a bloody nose, but more perhaps (a number of figures of speech suggest themselves) as a shot across the bows, a rap over the knuckles or even a stern warning rather than as a warm endorsement. There is a school of thought which believes that he has no choice.

But people think this because of the massive majorities which Labour enjoyed after the two elections before this one. Mr Blair has, when you come down to it - and whether he deserves it or not - secured a majority greater than that of John Major in 1992, Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Harold Wilson in either of the 1974 elections, or Edward Heath in 1970.

As Thatcherism was reaching its height, we may remember, Francis Pym, wearing his Chief Whip's hat, greatly annoyed his mistress by saying on television that he did not want a landslide and that a comfortable majority was all that he asked for. He duly paid the price for his indiscretion, if that was what it was, for he meant no more than that a huge majority was difficult to control because the rebellious element thought there was nothing much at stake.

In the 1966 Parliament, when Labour had a majority of 96, there was a system of unofficial whipping whereby select groups of MPs were allowed to take it in turns to vote against the government's support for the Vietnam war. This allowed them to satisfy both their consciences and their constituencies without risking a defeat for the government.

My own feeling is that the old Whip's wisdom no longer applies in quite the same way. One reason is that the former group of around 40 irreconcilables remains largely intact. Even Mr Robert Marshall-Andrews, against his own expectations, survived in Medway. Appeals to the better nature of its members are unlikely to meet with much success. If this were the beginning of a new Labour era after a long spell of Conservative rule, as it was in 1964 or 1997, party discipline might be easier. But it is not like that. The old inhibitions are no longer in place.

The other reason is that the Prime Minister is no longer lord of all he surveys. He has delivered a third term and will doubtless receive several standing ovations at this year's party conference on that account. But the election result has made Mr Brown's imminent succession more likely rather than less. That seems to be the wisdom of the wise. Quite why this should be so when, judged by the standards of the past, the result is more than respectable: this is difficult to say. But so it is.

Mr Howard has kept the Conservative party in the land of the living, just about, even though he is now following the selfish course set by Mr Major and Mr William Hague. Mr Charles Kennedy has done well, but better against Labour than against the Conservatives. There is certainly no immediate sign that the Liberal Democrats are shortly to replace the Tories as the official Opposition. And yet, over all there seems to be a cloud carrying the message that Mr Blair is somehow in disgrace. The message would still be there even if Mr Blair had not promised to depart sometime in this Parliament.

But in the last few days Mr Blair has taken to talking about serving a "full term". If this means that the Government is going to go on for four years, the response must be: why on earth should it not, with a comfortable majority? To say as much is merely to assert the obvious. Yet Mr Blair, one suspects, is referring not to the Government but to Mr Blair. In that case, there will soon be trouble with Mr Brown, who does not want to hang on for what must seem to him to be for ever. I see big rows ahead.