Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

The longer Blair stays, the worse it gets for Labour
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The Independent Online

The report draws on discussions with small groups of key voters, who were asked what they would say if they could write a letter to Mr Blair. The themes which emerged were "you left me!", you are "too big for your boots", you have become a "celebrity" and you need to "reflect and change" because you have "lost sight of reality, how the person in the street lives". "Good Tony", the first party leader people would go to a party with, had become "Bad Tony", who lied over Iraq and was "Bush's poodle".

According to the document, the New Labour brand is "under threat" because it is "far too reliant" on Mr Blair. Voters described it as a skunk ("they stink because they lie"); a snake ("they slither out of everything"); a spider ("creepy crawly, sneaky") a cuckoo (which took over the Tories' nest) a chameleon ("keeps changing") and a fox ("sly, untrustworthy.")

Unfortunately for Mr Blair, the advice in the report is not much use to him in his current predicament. The focus groups were held in the run-up to last year's general election and shaped the fightback in which he was verbally beaten up by voters in television studios, and likened his relationship with the public to a marriage.

The report was presented to a recent Market Research Society conference by Promise, the company which did the research and briefed Mr Blair himself on their unflattering findings. To his credit, he listened and acted - not least by bringing Gordon Brown back into a frontline election role. Mr Blair won the election in spite of his own unpopularity, not because he suddenly became popular last May. And not least because the Tories were seen as unfit for government. The same key voters depicted the Tories as a slug ("lagging behind"), a tortoise ("in hibernation") and a dodo ("becoming extinct").

But the report, a fascinating insight into how political strategy is made, reminds us of how bad things were for Mr Blair as he approached the election - worse than we realised at the time. So it is a fair bet that the image of the Prime Minister would be at least as bad now if the same people were interviewed again. His ratings might well be worse - if the opinion polls showing the Tories seven points ahead of Labour are right.

And what would the marketing whizzkids prescribe now if they had to write another report on how to reconnect the Prime Minister? I think the pages would be pretty blank.

The question is relevant because Labour MPs are increasingly asking the question, what is the point of Mr Blair staying on much longer? He has got most of what he wanted on pensions and nuclear power and a watered down Education Bill has been approved by the Commons. So what's left? A decision on renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent, perhaps.

After that, Mr Blair's goal is really about trying to lock in his successor to his reform programme - for example, by influencing next year's government-wide spending review. But that's when it gets tough, because Gordon Brown regards the review as his domain. (Mr Brown will be the successor; ignore the rising share price of Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who is a serious candidate for deputy but not yet for leader.)

In an attempt to deflect the spotlight away from his own future, Mr Blair embarked on a busy programme of policy-based initiatives this week. On Tuesday, I watched him discuss his public service reforms with key workers at a conference. He was in listening mode, and impressive. But despite being repeatedly told that public servants were drowning in a sea of centrally-imposed initiatives, he stuck to his "permanent revolution" mantra. After nine years, it is wearing a bit thin.

Ultra-Blairites point out that their man was re-elected just over a year ago, having promised the electorate that he would serve a full term. But that doesn't cut much ice with Labour MPs now. The Tories are no longer dead as a dodo, and many MPs are worried that Labour is on a downward slide which will be increasingly hard for Mr Brown to halt the longer it continues.

Labour MPs fear that, if Mr Blair is still at the helm, the party will lose power in Scotland and Wales in the assembly elections next May, with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition likely in Edinburgh and a Plaid Cymru-Liberal Democrat-Conservative arrangement predicted in Cardiff.

The Prime Minister wants to stay on until next summer, and so sensible Blairites are wondering whether he will again need to pre-announce his retirement to limit the damage in the May elections. Others say that would leave him a dead duck as the newspapers and the Tories counted the days to his departure. An increasing number of Labour MPs think it would be better for him to go before next May, but many believe he won't be forced out by then because, they judge, Mr Brown will not want to wield the dagger.

"The game is up for Tony," one minister told me this week. "The sooner he realises it, the better. It's going to be hard to find a way to go out on a high. But we can't carry on like this for another year." It wasn't a Brown supporter speaking. It was someone the Prime Minister would regard as a loyal Blairite. That is ominous.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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