Andrew Grice: The week in politics

Brown eyes the top job as support for the Prime Minister begins to fall away
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When Tony Blair launched Labour's 23,000-word manifesto for the general election in May, he had high hopes that its 277 policy commitments would provide a legacy that would allow him to leave Downing Street with his modernising mission accomplished.

As he starts his Christmas break, an exhausted Prime Minister is wondering whether implementing the manifesto is turning into Mission Impossible. Labour MPs show little appetite for the reforms, although they stood on that manifesto. In many Labour minds, "radical" change has become a bad thing. MPs say they prefer the brand of reform offered by the king over the water, Gordon Brown.

Mr Blair is also losing his authority in his Cabinet. Pensions was one of the big issues he wanted to resolve before leaving Downing Street. A commission chaired by Lord Turner of Ecchinswell produced a coherent package. Mr Blair judged it a good piece of work that should form the basis of the Government's strategy. Ministers were consulted, lines to take carefully prepared and agreed.

But Lord Turner's report was scuppered by a pre-emptive strike by Mr Brown who, unlike Mr Blair, does not like the proposed shift from means-tested help to a more generous basic state pension for all.

And Mr Brown pointedly declined to endorse the deal on the European Union budget agreed by Mr Blair at the Brussels summit a week ago. He has not come out against it, but put enough distance between himself and Mr Blair to suggest he would have done things differently. Precisely how, we do not know.

Cabinet discipline has also broken down on education, spectacularly.

A lowly parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education and Skills must resign because he cannot stomach the schools White Paper; others on the bottom rung of the government ladder may also jump. Yet John Prescott rubbishes the proposals in a newspaper interview and Mr Blair is powerless to bring him into line.

If there is one person whose support the Prime Minister needs, it is his Deputy's. His remarks do not signal a withdrawal of that support. But the moment that happens, Mr Blair will have to send for the removal men.

Education provides a good example of how quickly things have moved on since the election. When the manifesto was launched, Mr Blair talked up "radical" proposals on "choice" for parents and freedom for individual schools. In truth, the proposals were never that radical, but his language worried many of his backbenchers. Now he seeks to reassure them by drawing a dividing line with the Tories, saying he opposes selection by ability.

But many do not trust him, and the Government's presentation of the proposals has been poor. "We started off making a right-wing case for the reforms; now we are trying to make a left-wing case for them," a Blair aide told me gloomily.

The Prime Minister will make changes to the Education Bill to woo "soft" rebels in the hope of securing its passage without relying on the support of the Tories.

Education will be Mr Blair's biggest challenge in the new year. But there is more trouble ahead on health, welfare, pensions, nuclear power and the Trident missile system, all on Mr Blair's legacy list.

The irony is that in his first two terms, he was uncertain about what needed to be done and how to do it. Now, after eight and a half years as Prime Minister, he knows what he wants, but is losing the authority to do it. He made a revealing remark at his press conference on Wednesday when asked about the "choppy waters" he is now in. "As you go on more in power, it is more like this, and you have just got to put up with that, but the benefit you have got with the experience is that you are better able to cope with it," he said.

The other thing that has changed since the days of hope at the election is the spectacular arrival of David Cameron. On Wednesday, Mr Blair insisted New Labour was still "making the weather" because the new Tory leader was copying it. To some extent, that is true. But as the year closes, it feels as though Mr Cameron is setting the agenda. He has laid a dangerous trap for Mr Blair by offering to back the Education Bill, discomforting Labour backbenchers. And he has provoked a leadership wobble in the Liberal Democrats which may return in the new year. A pretty good first three weeks.

The Tory leader has also added to the tensions between Mr Blair and Mr Brown over when the "stable and orderly transition" promised by the Prime Minister before the next election should happen.

Mr Blair wants to get the measure of his new opponent before weakening him with telling blows, then allowing his successor to take over. But Mr Brown is desperate to climb into the ring as soon as possible, saying the only fight that matters is the one between him and Mr Cameron. He does not want to start so far behind on points he cannot win.

Mr Blair hopes he will still be Prime Minister next Christmas. But if his party decides it does not want his brand of reforms, he might hang up his gloves sooner than we expect.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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