Alan Watkins: This bloody carvery shows that Mr Blair will not go gently. He is ready for a fight

Mr Clarke was not always so appalling as Mr David Blunkett
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I note that Mr Tony Blair has followed the somewhat impertinent advice proffered to his dying father by Dylan Thomas and refused to go gentle into that good night. In fact his much-tried Swansea school master did not last very long, but that could not have been helped. Instead Mr Blair seems to have dug in for what used to be called the duration.

How have things arrived at this pass? Most politicians curl the truth at the edges. But Mr Blair contrives to turn a curved surface inside out. So it was that, shortly before the last election, he managed to persuade himself to believe two impossible things before breakfast: first, that he would serve a full third term and, second, that he would peacefully surrender Downing Street to Mr Gordon Brown's Farouche grasp.

There has since been a small modification to Mr Blair's position, but not much of one. All we know is that the Prime Minister is prepared to allow Mr Brown a period, shorter or longer, to bed himself in. We knew that before. The changes of the past week have been strangely violent - and have also been designed to prop up his authority, such as it remains.

The odd bauble for one of Mr Brown's Scots lawyers does nothing to shift the weight decisively or even at all in the Chancellor's favour. Coming from several weeks' absence, I find myself oddly disconcerted by my colleagues' insouciance. After all, Mr Blair's carvery was more bloody than Harold Macmillan's in 1962. Only Selwyn Lloyd was sacked; R A Butler was actually promoted; while Lord Home stayed where he was.

Mr Jack Straw, by contrast, was removed, whether because he was disagreeable to Ms Condoleezza Rice or because he was not agreeable enough - who can tell? - and he was replaced by Mrs Margaret Beckett. In 1981 she denounced Mr Neil Kinnock for failing to support Mr Tony Benn for the deputy leadership, so recalling the worst excesses of the French Revolution; indeed, she was a noted tricoteuse of her time.

Her undoubted successor is Ms Hazel Blears, the new Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety. She is the latest "party chairman" whose selection was Mr Blair's personal choice: the first was Mr Charles Clarke. The party had perfectly good chairmen of its own before, elected by the party conference on the hallowed principle of Buggins's Turn.

Mr Clarke has risen far and fallen further. "How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!" I find myself ambivalent on the subject of Mr Clarke. He undoubtedly managed to devise a way out of a constitutional impasse with the law lords. He was not always so appalling as Mr David Blunkett, though that was not to say much more. But he was always one of New Labour's new brutalists.

Two weeks ago the official line was that Mr Clarke was meant to sort out the mess. In fact the most terrible murderers, the most pitiless rapists, the most ruthless burglars and the most ingenious frauds were about to be released into the community. No, correction: for the last group were happily working outside, on the Private Finance Initiative, under Mr Brown's auspices.

But as for the rest, the others had been or were about to be released into the towns or into the countryside, for the simple reason that they had completed their sentences, or that portion of their sentences which they been required to serve. This simple fact seems to have eluded our great newspapers.

Only a small minority faced deportation. True, that minority proceeded to be scattered to the fields or the hedgerows, to the hostels or even their families. No doubt it was a scandal, but worse things happen at sea or in the Home Office.

But Mr Blair then came up with a wheeze or, as he likes to put these things, an "eye-catching initiative". There would be no nice balance to be struck between deportations or stays of execution, no discretion to exercise: in Winston Churchill's crude phrase, the object was to collar the lot.

There was some disagreement about the precise terms between Mr Blair and Mr Clarke. But now, alas, it seemed there were even more prisoners on the loose. Mr Blair's patience was exhausted; though he offered Mr Clarke several other ministries. I am still unable to understand why Mr Blair required Mr Clarke to take charge of the situation but only hours later to order him to give up the Home Office instead.

Time and again, Mr Blair will extend his process of reasoning, if such it can be called, or adopt a different process entirely. Thus: Mr Blair must deport all foreign criminals, but then he appoints the ubiquitous Dr John Reid instead.

Most Labour members are notoriously sentimental in their approach. Only George Lansbury was ever got rid of, and he was a short-lived leader merely. The only method of removing a Labour Prime Minister in office is by means of a card vote at the Party conference. All else is persiflage and window-dressing. Even so, there is enough to keep the troops happily occupied throughout those long sweaty evenings, when the Whips have enough on their hands.

Some of the more unusual suspects have been spotted in the television studios. Mr John Denham resigned from the Government on account of the Iraq War but has been the soul of moderation ever since. He seems to be saying that Mr Brown should be arriving sooner rather than later, with, naturally, all the proprieties fully preserved.

Then there was the former minister for work and pensions, Mr Andrew Smith. He once introduced himself to me as: "My name's Andrew Smith. You've never heard of me. I'm very boring." Of course I expressed incredulity. It would have been impolite to do otherwise. Mr Smith is not so much a Brownite as a solid citizen. Others are being dragged into the civil war as well.

My own view is that Mr Blair has chosen to fight. His own ministers are in place, except for Mr Brown. Mr Clarke is unfortunately a casualty of war. But I suspect it may be Mr Straw who plays Sir Geoffrey Howe to Mr Blair's Margaret Thatcher.

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