"How long will he last?" I have lost count of how many times I have been asked about Tony Blair's shelf life in the past week. MPs from all parties, Labour advisers whose jobs depend on it, a company chief executive, taxi drivers; even my very non-political hairdresser wanted to know.
My answer was: probably longer than the headlines suggest. Yet there is no doubt that Mr Blair has had yet another terrible week. As he returned yesterday from a seven-day tour of Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, he must have regretted setting off.
Some allies urged him not to go, but diplomatic niceties dictated that he attend the close of the Commonwealth Games. He got a warm response wherever he went, but the media coverage that mattered back home was almost entirely negative. Mr Blair mused in public over whether he was right to announce in the autumn of 2004 that he would not fight a fourth election as Labour leader. He mused in private that he had a departure date in his own mind.
His musings coincided with the damaging "loans for peerages" scandal. Twitchy Labour MPs stirred the pot by demanding a timetable for the "stable and orderly transition" that he promised them last year. There isn't much sign of one and that is the problem. "The Government is drifting and there's no sign of a transition," said one ally of an impatient Gordon Brown. He was accused of rocking the boat in the hope of tipping the Prime Minister overboard.
The Brown camp was bemused: one reason why the Chancellor has not moved against Mr Blair is that he doesn't want to take over No 10 with blood on the walls. But the Brown camp warned that it might tear up its non-aggression pact after two ultra-Blarities, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers criticised the Chancellor's cherished pension and tax credits in the Commons debate on his Budget. "That was an act of war," said one Brownite.
As you can see, the Prime Minister and Chancellor are at loggerheads once again. "Forget the spin about co-operation; they are in different orbits," said one insider.
If Labour is to have a blood-free transition, they need another urgent chat. If the present government paralysis goes on, Mr Blair cannot. "We are like someone in a three-legged race, being pulled in two different directions," said one cabinet minister.
One of the issues at the top of their joint in-tray is pensions. A White Paper is due next month. The Prime Minister wants to implement the thrust of Lord Turner of Ecchinswell's report, which would mean a higher basic state pension and scaling back means-tested top-ups. Although there is a growing consensus for this approach, the Chancellor regards it as unaffordable.
Their stand-off over pensions goes to the heart of the matter. Who holds the whip hand? Mr Blair, because he was re-elected as Prime Minister less than a year ago? Or Mr Brown, because he is going to take over at some point and can play for time to get his way?
Cabinet ministers regard pensions as a test of Mr Blair's authority. He has already vetoed Mr Brown's attempt to pre-empt the White Paper in his Budget. If the Prime Minister cannot have his way over pensions, what chance is there of completing unfinished business on education, nuclear power, nuclear weapons and Lords reform?
Mr Blair has bounced back before. He was written off as a lame duck days after last year's election, yet London's 2012 Olympics win and his statesmanlike response to the 7/7 bombings reminded Labour MPs of his appeal. Having seen him up close recently, he doesn't look like a man who has run out of steam. But the frenzied atmosphere among Labour MPs shows that something has changed, and the post-Blair era suddenly feels closer. The old cliché rattled out by political hacks like me about the need to "reassert his authority" has never been more appropriate.
His friends sense the sand is running through the hourglass much more quickly than they anticipated. One of Mr Blair's closest allies told me: "He needs to do three things: work out what he wants to do before he goes; work out how long it will take; and then answer the crucial question, what is the point of Tony Blair?" With friends like these ...Reuse content