Alan Watkins: Tony's back and Gordon's foot in the door

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The Independent Online

Mr Tony Blair's latest visit to hospital has revived the official guidance from No 10 about his serving a "full term". He himself had used the phrase, several times, during the election campaign. The Labour canvassers at the front door might have employed the slogan "Vote Blair, get Brown", or words to this effect, which the Tories had originally and erroneously thought would prove damaging to the Government. The Prime Minister, for his part, cried: "Vote Blair, get Blair."

Afterwards, in his short-lived emollient phase (unreflected, by the way, in a Queen's Speech of breathtaking vanity and conceit), he put another record on. The catchy chorus was about an orderly transfer of power to Mr Gordon Brown at some unspecified time in the future. Friends of Mr Brown said, for their own propagandist purposes - or to keep their spirits up - that this would happen sooner rather than later. Admirers of the Prime Minister, a declining band, replied that it would come about with dignity, at a time of his own choosing, after he had secured his place in history.

At least Winston Churchill, hanging on in the early 1950s with Anthony Eden playing the part of Mr Brown, had some clear object in mind. This was to secure a summit conference between the Soviet Union and the United States, with him having a leading role in the proceedings. Mr Blair has no such specific aim, for to resolve the affairs of the Dark Continent - which is said to be one of them - would take seven maids with seven mops a couple of decades at least.

But now we are in pre-election mode again, with Mr Blair, so we are told, once more set to serve a full term. The reason is not far to seek. It is that ill-health, or even the suggestion of it, is the cause always of alarm and often of panic in those holding power over us and their hangers-on. Indeed, when JV Stalin was safely dead, and there could be no doubt about his condition, his placemen could not bear to admit it even to one another and certainly not to the populace at large.

Any hint of illness in a politician invariably invites the response from his close supporters that, though he may not be immortal, he is certainly going to go on for a long time. The reason is that they fear for his job and consequently for their own jobs. They do so on the analogy of the animal kingdom, where the members of the pack turn on and kill a wounded member.

Perhaps they are being unfair to our lupine friends. The Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote a book entitled Mutual Aid which related the habits of happy co-operation obtaining among wild beasts and became a seminal work among the early socialists. I have the feeling that the phrase "full term" originated with Mr Blair's second visit to hospital for his minor heart trouble. The most recent is about something else, his back, though that does not seem to be specially serious either. My advice to the Prime Minister is:

Tony, take it easy. If Cherie likes it so much, as she told The Sun recently, tell her that she must do her bit too. Of course you must not be at all harsh, but tell her, gently, that she cannot expect you to do all the work. I am sure she will understand. This was, I read, the policy adopted by JF Kennedy, who was younger than you when he died but whose back was much worse. With average luck, you should have many years of active and enjoyable life ahead of you, though I am a little worried because whenever I see you, you seem to have a mug of something unhealthy in your hand.

But where does all this leave Mr Brown? I do not, I may say, feel particularly sorry for him. He could have taken firm and decisive action in 2004, 2003 or even 2002, when the Iraq war was being incubated: but he chose not to do any such thing. He was not like Roy Jenkins, who did not really want to be Prime Minister at all. He was not even like RA Butler, who wanted the job but thought he would get it without too much struggle and was, in any case, averse to any unpleasantness. He is more like a luckier version of Denis Healey.

It is perhaps worth remembering that every single election for leader of the Labour Party has been contested since CR Attlee defeated Herbert Morrison in 1935. Only one of the transfers of power, to use Mr Blair's phrase, took place when the party was in government, and none of them was forced. James Callaghan succeeded the resigned Harold Wilson in 1976 (with Michael Foot, not Healey, as the runner-up). Then the electorate consisted of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which was better than the present artificial and corruptible electoral college of a third each from the MPs, the constituencies and the trade unions.

There is little doubt that Mr Brown would win any contest in this somewhat fraudulent forum fair and square. But if he and Mr Blair think they can somehow slip him in sideways, as Tory leaders were slipped in before the party went democratic in 1965, or as Mr Michael Howard was more recently, they have another think coming. All kinds of likely lads, maybe lasses too, will fancy their chances, the more so if our great economy goes awry.

But success in a party election is the least of Mr Brown's worries. What must be of more concern to him is an election involving rather more people, to be held in 2009 or even 2010, and the time he is given to prepare for it. The highest literary reputations can be acquired by authors - Jane Austen, Herbert Butterfield, EM Forster, Hugh Trevor-Roper - without the necessity of their having to write very many books or, in Lord Acton's case, any books at all. Not so with Prime Ministers. Their reputations depend on longevity. Conversely, politicians who put in a short spell at No 10 are rarely thought to be much good. Edward Heath had three years and eight months, Callaghan three years and one month, Eden a year and nine months, and Alec Douglas-Home a year only.

Between Labour's defeat in 1992 and the death of John Smith two years later there was an argument in the party about whether fundamental rethinking was required. Or would one final heave suffice? The argument was resolved in favour of the former by the arrival of Mr Blair. The Tories are now having a similar dispute. My own feeling is that, provided they are sensible - a big qualification - a heave will now manage it. If Mr Blair serves his full term, the question then will not so much be whether Mr Brown joins the ranks of short-serving Prime Ministers as whether rather, like those other Chancellors, Butler, Healey and Jenkins, he will ever become Prime Minister at all.