Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Blair to stay until 2012? Not if Gordon (or Cherie) can help it
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The Independent Online

What started as a joke amid the jubilation over the Olympics has become deadly serious in the wake of the London bombings. Mr Blair's response and ability to speak for the nation has been so assured that some senior allies want to persuade him to scrap his plans to stand down before the general election. They will tell him it is his historic duty to bury the Tories for good by winning a fourth election.

As one cabinet minister put it: "This has brought home to everyone that no other politician in the country could have handled it as well as Tony. Gordon [Brown] must know that too."

It is, of course, rather tasteless to play political snakes and ladders in the aftermath of a tragedy. Yet the game never stops at Westminster, which can't help itself. The new mood is that Tony is up, Gordon is down and Tony should go "on and on".

However tempting a scenario, it won't happen. Mr Blair brusquely cut short one admirer who started to tell him to fight another election. "Don't go there," was the Prime Minister's edict.

True, Mr Blair could argue that circumstances had changed since he announced in September he would not fight a fourth election as Labour leader. The political landscape has certainly changed dramatically.

Mr Blair has gone from near the bottom to the top of the snakes and ladders board. After winning a difficult election in May, he wondered whether he had lost it when some of his MPs called on him to quit. But, once things settled down, events largely outside his control have shown him at his best.

He skilfully turned the crisis in the EU to Britain's advantage. He took a calculated risk by going to Singapore to lobby for the Olympics and struck gold. He also set the bar high for the G8 Summit at Gleneagles and made genuine progress on Africa. Then came the terrorist attacks on London he has feared since 11 September 2001.

Mr Blair has rediscovered his old touch and won the respect of some sceptical Labour MPs as well as the opposition. The only time he looked flustered was when Michael Howard and Ian Paisley showered praise on him and he didn't know how to reply.

Yet this unexpected turn of events will not change Mr Blair's plans to depart before the next election. His public statement of intent does not leave him the wriggle room he had after his dinners with Gordon Brown at Granita restaurant in 1994 and Admiralty House in 2003.

If Mr Blair tried to fight another election, he would provoke a declaration of all-out war by the Brownites that could wreck Labour's prospects of winning a fourth term. He wants to leave his party in a better state than Margaret Thatcher left hers. And I suspect the Chancellor would not be the only one to erupt if he changed his mind : Cherie Blair would too.

It is an uncomfortable time for the Brown camp. Some ultra-Blairite MPs, who would have no future under a Brown regime, are savouring the moment. The economic storm clouds are gathering and may rain on Mr Brown's impressive record. His tax credits are causing MPs more grief in their constituencies than any other issue.

Some Labour MPs say Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, is handling the terrorism crisis so well he could emerge as a credible "stop Brown" candidate. His pitch would be he could refresh the parts of Middle England a Scottish leader couldn't reach.

Again, I can't see it happening. Mr Brown is so far ahead that it would take a political earthquake to stop him. Normal politics will not be suspended for ever. Mr Blair's revival is unlikely to prevent a Labour drubbing at next May's council elections.

So Mr Brown has no reason to panic. Many have always believed it might be better to become Prime Minister later rather than sooner in this parliament, so he could seek his own mandate at a general election before voters tired of him.

Indeed, one unintended consequence of the London bombings may be to give Mr Blair an extra year in Downing Street. If he wants to stay until 2008, he may be able to. On 6 May, it seemed Mr Brown was the stronger and would determine when Mr Blair stood down. Suddenly, the roles are reversed. Mr Blair may get his final wish: to quit in his own time, without being pushed out.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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