Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Less will be more for Blair as his time ends
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The Independent Online

"But I'm really motoring on this," Tony Blair told a close ally who advised him to prioritise more in his final months in office. After moves by Labour MPs to oust him over the "cash-for-peerages" affair petered out, the Prime Minister is still at the wheel. But he is fast running out of road.

When Mr Blair is asked the inevitable "why are you still here?" question, he rattles off a long list of what he still hopes to achieve before he stands down this summer. He assures us he is too busy to keep a diary. Sometimes he even lists his daily engagements, just to make sure we don't think he's coasting to the finishing line.

He professes not to read newspapers, which I don't believe. Yet he chases headlines for a new (very small) measure on antisocial behaviour or another crackdown on paedophiles on an almost daily basis, as if he were a fresh-faced leader of the opposition.

Mr Blair gave short shrift to the adviser who told him to concentrate on a few big things before his long goodbye ends. There was still so much unfinished business, he said. "He is going to go up to the wire at full speed and then stop," one Blair aide explained. Maybe he doesn't want to go.

So the apparently frantic attempt to cement his legacy will go on, it seems. There is a fin de siècle atmosphere at Westminster. Mr Blair's views matter less and less. When he announced on Wednesday that he will support a half-elected, half-appointed House of Lords rather than an all-appointed second chamber, there were no screaming headlines about a "Blair U-turn". The media, rightly, is more interested in what Gordon Brown would do.

So are ministers, especially those who wonder whether they will keep their place in Mr Brown's team of "all the talents". Rising Blairite stars in the junior ranks will continue to shine. Some Blairites in the Cabinet will be politely shown the door - or offered the Northern Ireland Office.

Reports of total paralysis in the government machine are exaggerated. But there is a sense of limbo. Ministers who don't like an idea from Downing Street will play for time - and find out "what Gordon wants".

Ministers know Mr Blair cannot sack anyone now and are speaking out. Forget the No 10 explanation - it wouldn't happen unless Mr Blair was on the way out.

The belated candour of ministers is to be welcomed. Of course, some of the most outspoken ones are those who want to be Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Blair frets that their pandering to Labour and the unions will send a bad signal to voters. But the younger generation of Blairites is more grown-up about it. If Labour can't have a debate about its future now, when can it?

Rather late in the day, Mr Blair has launched a wide-ranging policy review by six cabinet groups to set down markers for the next 10 years. Yet everyone knows the crucial decisions will be taken in a fundamental review of each department's spending being conducted by the Chancellor.

The good news for Mr Blair is the two exercises are no longer running in parallel but are starting to dovetail. Mr Blair can influence the debate on what happens when he has left. But there is little doubt Mr Brown has the trump cards.

The danger for the Prime Minister is that he falls between several stools. Of course, he has an important role to play in securing a return to self-government in Northern Ireland. But he also plans another (probably fruitless) visit to the Middle East and is still aiming very high on a global agreement on climate change.

Mr Blair's undoubted energies might be best devoted to sorting out the NHS. He wants to be remembered as the Prime Minister who saved it. But you wouldn't know that from the day-to-day headlines.

By prioritising, Mr Blair might get longer. "He can stay until June or July - but not if he carries on like this," one Labour MP said. And he is a loyal Blairite.

Mr Blair's reflective speeches have been good. We might not agree with his conclusions, but no one would doubt he speaks with the benefit of 10 years' experience. He is not going to find it easy to let go. As his time runs out, he needs to accept he can achieve more by doing less.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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