Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Blair gets lesson in leadership - but will he take any notice?

It has been a momentous week in politics. Whenever Mr Blair departs, I am sure we will look back on it as the beginning of the end. His crushing Commons defeat over plans to allow the police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge is all the more damaging because it was unnecessary. He should have trusted the instincts of Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, who might have secured a compromise of 42 days. The vote in favour of 28 days was a direct result of Mr Blair's confrontational stance.

The Prime Minister's grip on the levers of power is loosening. Even in the Cabinet, things are not all they seem. The loyalists John Reid and Patricia Hewitt took to the airwaves to trumpet the Cabinet's unanimous decision to rally behind Mr Blair when it met on the morning after his defeat. What they didn't say was that some ministers expressed concern about the dangers of Labour being divided against itself.

It is not only Labour MPs who are demanding more consultation on the reforms Mr Blair hopes to push through. Several ministers are still seething that they were presented with a fait accompli last month when the Education White Paper was dropped on them. When it went before the Cabinet, ministers were told it was too late to change it because it had already been sent to the printers. The only reason it was reprinted was that it was littered with spelling and drafting errors.

Mr Blair's determination to drive through a final round of reforms worries some natural allies. One normally loyal minister told me: "Thank God I am not in a department where he is forcing me to push through some legacy nonsense before he departs."

On Monday, the Prime Minister told Labour MPs they should not fall into the "Tory trap" of allowing him to be separated from his own party. This produced rueful smiles from some MPs because Mr Blair, since becoming Labour leader in 1994, has repeatedly separated himself from his own party. For much of the time, the tactic has worked brilliantly: many voters clearly preferred him to his party.

But times have changed. The voters may be tiring of him, as they are bound to of any prime minister. Now that Mr Blair is not going to fight another general election, defining himself against his own party has its limitations. He tried it on the Terrorism Bill, on which many more Labour MPs than the 49 who rebelled have real reservations. For the first time, it didn't work. Given that a compromise was possible, Mr Blair has expended a large amount of his diminishing stock of capital. With hindsight, he should have saved more of it for the battles that lie ahead on schools, the National Health Service and incapacity benefit.

To make progress, he will have to work harder to take his own party with him. Some doubt that he is capable at this late stage of changing his style of leadership. He felt "liberated" after announcing last year he would not lead Labour into a fourth election. The trouble is that his backbenchers feel liberated to stand up to him.

All prime ministers have to make concessions to their own party. John Major called it "tacking". With a tiny majority, he had no choice. Mr Blair mocked him for weak leadership.

The irony is that Mr Blair could have forced through his reforms when he enjoyed a massive majority during his first two terms. It has taken him too long to work out what he wants to do on education, health and welfare and he may now lack the power and the time to do it.

Mr Blair's dilemma is that if he has to water down his reforms, he will feel that there is little point in him staying on. Yet if he rushes ahead, he faces the real prospect of more Commons defeats that would precipitate his exit. Will he go down in flames with all guns blazing or discover the art of compromise? The answer will determine the length of his tenure in No 10. I suspect he will be around for a while yet.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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