Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

A history lesson for Blair: Prime Ministers rarely leave at a time of their own choosing
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"Who is Mike Gapes?" a colleague asked me this week after I quoted him as joining the fast-lengthening queue of Tony Blair's Labour critics. "Mike Gapes is very important," I replied. "When people like him start to criticise Blair, he's in trouble."

By complete coincidence, the next day a Blair aide told me unprompted over lunch: "In the current climate, the views of Mike Gapes suddenly take on enormous significance." Mr Gapes, who was a Labour official before becoming an MP in 1992, is an archetypal loyalist. As chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he told the BBC Mr Blair's successor would probably pursue a very similar foreign policy but would abandon his "hug-them-close" strategy under which he never criticises George Bush in public.

As it happens, Mr Gapes did not call for Mr Blair to set a date for his departure - even though, in the febrile atmosphere at Westminster, that is how some parts of the media reported his remarks.

But Mr Gapes was among a group of MPs invited to Chequers on Thursday to discuss Mr Blair's plans to kickstart the Middle East peace process - after which the Prime Minister gave him a whistlestop tour of his country pile.

On the same day, he also invited The Times to Chequers. It was he who asked for the interview, not the other way round. His intention was to call for a wide-ranging debate on Labour's policy. But inevitably, the newspaper was more interested in the growing demands by Labour MPs for him to spell out his exit strategy.

Downing Street issued a transcript yesterday of the interview so that Mr Blair's thoughts on the need for policy renewal could get more of an airing. Blairite ministers and ex-ministers will step up the demand next week.

This is more of a source of friction with Gordon Brown than the date in 2007 that Mr Blair decides to ring in his diary. It is no accident that yesterday's criticism of Mr Blair's refusal to name a day now was led by leading Brownites. But what most irks the Brown camp is not whether Mr Blair leaves Number 10 next July or September. It is his apparent attempt to tie the hands of his most likely successor.

New Labour's two main architects have diverged over the need for another raft of market-based reforms to public services. That does not mean, as the Blair camp sometimes suggests, the Chancellor is anti-reform. It does mean that he sees less of a need than ardent Blairites for more "choice, contestability and diversity", which inevitably means more state-funded services being delivered by the private sector. Blairites think this permanent revolution is needed to improve services so they enjoy public support. Brownites doubt it.

The Times interview epitomises the Prime Minister's problem: he wants to talk policy, but he can't get his message through the fog of speculation about his own future. He doesn't want to give a date because, if he did, he suspects the fog would just get thicker and his critics would say: "You might as well go now."

An eternal optimist, Mr Blair will make a serious attempt to revive the Middle East "road-map" when he travels to the region later this month.

It will not be a token flying visit. But he fears that whatever influence he has would be less if all the players there knew for sure he would not in his job next summer or autumn.

Although previously loyal MPs in marginal seats have joined the clamour for him to reveal his exit strategy, the Blair camp hopes they will not plunge Labour into "meltdown" by mounting a bloody coup that would only reduce their chances of retaining their seats.

The fact that such calculations are being made shows how precarious Mr Blair's position has become. The backlash over his Times interview yesterday suggests his Plan A did not work. He may be forced to deploy Plan B, perhaps by hinting during his speech on 26 September that it will be his last to Labour's annual conference. That would buy him some time.

"Anything could happen," one Blair loyalist admitted. And things can happen very quickly in politics. The herd instinct of politicians can easily cause a stampede.

In 1990, Margaret Thatcher told us: "I fight on, I fight to win," after failing to kill off Michael Heseltine in the first round of a Tory leadership contest. The following morning, she resigned, forced out by her own Cabinet.

Three years ago, Iain Duncan Smith survived the threat to his leadership at the Tory conference but was out later that month after losing a vote of confidence among his MPs.

The forthcoming book about Charles Kennedy's fall provides another reminder. In January, as he admitted his drink problem, he called a leadership contest in which he fully intended to be a candidate. Two days later, he was driven out by his Liberal Democrat MPs.

Mr Blair, naturally, wants to bow out on a high. After winning three elections, he believes his party owes him a dignified exit.

"The trouble is, there aren't any highs, only lows," one Blairite minister sighed, admitting Mr Blair had got it "slightly wrong" by hugging President Bush too close over Lebanon.

Mr Blair still hopes for a long goodbye. His party, however, may have other ideas.