Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

When will the PM go? Only he knows
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The Independent Online

He's back, but for how long? As Tony Blair returned from his holiday in Barbados yesterday, there was a strong sense of déjà vu in the air. Mr Blair tries to regain the initiative with policy announcements as another tricky party conference looms, while the Prime-Minister-still-in-waiting next door wonders when his turn will come.

Yet something is different. Mr Blair's time is running out; next month's gathering in Manchester could be his last. But as he reflected on his future, he apparently reached the view there was no sense of national crisis in Britain that should force him into a hasty exit from Downing Street. He intends to stick around for at least another year.

Such a conclusion will not surprise his Labour critics, whose numbers have grown considerably over what they see as his slavish support for George Bush over the Lebanon crisis. His planned visit to the Middle East next month is unlikely to change minds. To the critics, the Prime Minister's apparent desire to stay on will look like further evidence of a bunker mentality in No 10.

In their eyes, there might not be a national crisis, but there is certainly one looming for Labour. Many in his party have concluded that its prospects of winning a fourth election recede every month he remains its leader.

Labour MPs want to settle their nerves. If they can't persuade Mr Blair to stand down this autumn, they want to at least prise out of him a date by when he will go. They hope he will oblige by the time he addresses the Labour conference on 26 September.

Such pressure is not coming from the usual suspects. Ominously, the demands for a departure timetable were backed this week by Lord Soley, the normally loyal former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Yet the critics may again be disappointed. Mr Blair will have to say something about his future to prevent the next month being overshadowed by it. But the something may turn out to be very little indeed, and is likely to stop a long way short of giving a date. During his hols, Mr Blair apparently reinforced his judgement that talking about his exit strategy does not halt speculation about it. He admits making a fundamental mistake two years ago, when he announced he would not seek a fourth term as Prime Minister.

He bought a little time after last year's election by pledging a "stable and orderly transition" but when he promised his successor "ample time" after the local elections in May, it didn't solve anything. So he seems to think there is little point in being more specific at this stage, that he would be a dead duck once he names a firm date.

He knows full well that Margaret Thatcher was ejected by her own party, not the voters, and does not want to suffer such an ignominous exit, which would damage Labour as well as his own reputation.

His strategy is to get on with the job, facing up to new challenges such as terrorism and immigration, and show that his party is not merely contemplating its own navel. The annual autumn policy blitz takes on more importance than usual. But it won't be easy to inject much fizz after nine years in power, at a time when his own MPs want to know not about his policies but Gordon Brown's.

The Chancellor wants to offer both "continuity and change", maintaining Mr Blair's original appeal to Middle England but winning back the voters' lost trust. But until Mr Brown takes over, we will know very little about what that means in practice.

The question of just how different Mr Brown would be is something of an obsesssion for ultra-Blairites. They are trying to force the Chancellor to sign up in blood to the Blair agenda continuing after Blair. Some of them even think it would be better to have a "real contest" for the leadership in which Mr Brown faced a challenge from a Blairite such as John Reid or Alan Johnson rather than a token left-wing opponent who would be crushed.

Mr Reid is the flavour of the month after an assured response to the latest terror threat. He has a spring in his step. Friends noted he finally went off on his hols when Mr Blair returned from his - hardly a vote of confidence in John Prescott.

Mr Brown intends to be the New Labour candidate in the leadership election. Any doubts should have been allayed by his pledge to renew Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

So when will Mr Blair depart? We still don't know. Nor do his allies. Perhaps even he doesn't. His decision, when it comes, is not one to be taken by committee or a handful of trusted advisers. It will be a lonely one, taken by one man.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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