Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Brown's ambition is jeopardising a 'stable and orderly' take-over
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The Independent Online

Next Friday, after the Tory conference in Blackpool, Mr Howard will "resign" again. But he will limp on until December because the leadership rules he proposed were thrown out by his own party. Its 300,000 members will keep the decisive say and so a ballot must now be held.

The other people in Mr Howard's Commons office on 6 May were right: he should have sorted out the leadership rules before announcing his departure.

However, Labour can't crow too loudly about our rudderless opposition. Exactly a year ago, Tony Blair announced he would not fight a fourth election but would serve a "full term" if he won a third. Some close advisers tried to talk him out of it, warning that he would be seen as a lame duck and would struggle to serve anything approaching a full third term.

But he did not want the election to be dominated by speculation about whether he would go "on and on" or might stand down during the next parliament. He wanted to calm down Gordon Brown who, he suspected, was trying to prise him out before the election. So he made a dramatic announcement about his future, his imminent heart treatment and his purchase of a £3.5m house in London.

Mr Blair got through the election, thanks to Mr Brown's support. But his hopes of serving a "full term" without speculation about when he will quit have been dashed. On Thursday, Mr Blair admitted that one lot of speculation had been replaced by another lot.

As Mr Howard discovered when his backbenchers turned on him at their weekly meetings, once a leader says he is going, he loses some if not all of his authority. Mr Blair told those who doubted his long exit strategy that his trump card would be his power of patronage - in other words, he could fire any ministers who did not remain loyal to him.

He was wrong. Cabinet ministers are already planning for the succession. When Charles Clarke, Tessa Jowell and Peter Hain virtually anointed Mr Brown as the next Prime Minister on the eve of Labour's Brighton conference, it was not a co-ordinated Downing Street plot (as, revealingly, the Brownites assumed). What they said was both a statement of the obvious and of self-interest: all ministers hope for life after Blair and, because he will go at some point in this parliament, are inevitably gravitating towards the prime minister-in-waiting.

Mr Brown, in turn, is wooing his Cabinet colleagues. Some Blairite ministers think Mr Blair has been taking them for granted: they want a clearer mission statement on domestic issues.

The Labour conference was like Groundhog Day. For the third year running, the Brown camp insists their man is not rocking Mr Blair's boat, while the Blair camp protests that his impatient neighbour is trying to grab the keys to No. 10 prematurely

Mr Brown sets out his alternative agenda on Monday. The next day, an irritated Mr Blair reasserts his authority and makes clear he is going on - if not on and on. True, the Chancellor bought shares in the New Labour brand this year. But he also said he would go on a year's tour of the country. In the Blair camp, that was taken as a year's notice to quit.

By the end of the week, the message from Team Blair to Mr Brown was much less conciliatory than at the start. It said it would be watching closely to see if Mr Brown signs up to the next health and education reforms planned by Mr Blair. Instead of saying Mr Brown was a shoo-in, the Blair camp's line changed to: "Gordon is the most likely - but not the automatic - successor. In three years, a lot can change. You never know - someone else might emerge." This is a warning not to try to push Mr Blair out. In other words, the transition will not be "stable and orderly", as Mr Blair promised in May, if the Chancellor makes trouble. As one Blairite put it: "The only thing that can stop Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister is Gordon Brown." A Brownite minister agreed: "Gordon will have to go back into his cage. He doesn't want to inherit a divided party and lose the election. He doesn't want to be a nine-month Prime Minister."

So Mr Blair has the upper hand - for now. The prime minister-still-in-waiting will have to contain his ambition - again. Perhaps Mr Brown announced his tour a bit early. But having done it, he will probably speed up Mr Blair's eventual departure.

The Blair-Brown see-saw is tipping in Mr Brown's direction. Mr Blair may have a long list of policy issues in his in-tray, but his time is running out. He will not be able to tick all the boxes.

At next year's Labour conference, neither Mr Brown nor Mr Blair will be able to make the same speech for a fourth year running. I suspect the party will want a departure timetable from the Prime Minister. Groundhog Day is finally drawing to a close.