Blair's Biggest Conversation won't be in public

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When Tony Blair asked Labour MPs for a "big idea", a few words that would really grab the electorate, Bob Marshall-Andrews, the serial rebel and QC, boomed back: "I resign."

When Tony Blair asked Labour MPs for a "big idea", a few words that would really grab the electorate, Bob Marshall-Andrews, the serial rebel and QC, boomed back: "I resign."

Everyone at the meeting laughed. But that was three weeks ago. If it happened now, Labour backbenchers wouldn't be laughing; they would be more likely to cheer Mr Marshall-Andrews.

The harrowing images showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners have seriously blackened the mood of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

When I spent half a day with Mr Blair on Thursday, he joked that Iraq had made it his "worst week since the last worst week". Privately, he knows that he is in deeper trouble than ever since becoming Prime Minister.

But I detected no sign that he will bow to the growing chorus from his MPs to disentangle himself from President George Bush. The demands are not confined to the backbenches; although the Cabinet rallied behind Mr Blair on Thursday, some members want to see him use tougher language deploring the mistreatment by US troops.

In Mr Blair's eyes, there are only two options on Iraq: plough on or give up. If he is to plough on, he needs maximum influence with the United States. Going wobbly at this critical time, in the run-up to a partial handover of power to the Iraqis on 30 June, would reduce Britain's bargaining clout.

His backbench troops are desperate for some evidence that Britain really does "influence" the US. This is where it gets tricky for Mr Blair. I have no doubt that he would love to tell us that he prevented an even more heavy-handed US response in Fallujah and Najaf.

But he feels that he can't, because his pal in the White House wouldn't listen in the future, for example, on the crucial negotiations over the next few weeks on a United Nations resolution on Iraq.

Mr Blair is convinced that his unwavering support for President Bush buys him a seat at the table. He often finds himself arguing the same corner as Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. The problem is that they are often outgunned by the hawkish Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President.

One key question is whether the scandal over Iraqi detainees will reduce Mr Rumsfeld's clout. But he is a great survivor and, sadly, as yet there is little sign of his influence falling.

Mr Blair's troubles in his own party will undoubtedly get worse if he sends more troops to Iraq. Perhaps his famous luck is running out.

The latest crisis coincides with the run-up to the local and European elections on 10 June, and Labour officials fear that many of the party's supporters will not vote or will switch to the Liberal Democrats. If worse-than-expected results are blamed on "the Iraq effect", the pressure on the Prime Minister will mount.

But that doesn't mean that his MPs will try to oust him. "If we installed Gordon Brown [as Prime Minister] tomorrow, the problems in Iraq would still be there," one Labour MP said. "People are furious with Blair, but don't want to knife him."

I suspect the most dangerous point for the Prime Minister will be the Labour Party conference in October, which is supposed to be the launchpad for a general election next May. If Iraq is still in crisis, Mr Blair will be in desperate trouble.

A formal leadership challenge is unlikely. But he could walk the plank if enough Labour MPs judge him to have become an electoral liability and persuade cabinet ministers to act.

The pivotal figure will be John Prescott. At the moment, he remains solidly behind Mr Blair. But if he turns, the game will be up.

Mr Blair has always been tolerated, but never loved, by his own party. Close allies have always feared that he would have "nothing in the bank" in the event of a real leadership crisis and that there could be an unstoppable haemorrhage of support. We are not at that point yet, but we might be in October.

When I watched him at close quarters in the West Midlands on Thursday, the Prime Minister did not look like a man about to throw in the towel. Having escaped the Westminster hothouse, he seemed rejuvenated. Discussing skills training and anti-social behaviour with "real people" provided a temporary respite from Iraq.

Nor did he look like a liability. When the residents of a Birmingham council estate outlined the problems caused by yobs, drug addicts and alcoholics, he could barely get a word in. But when he left their community centre, he was surprised to get a round of applause. A woman who had given him a hard time told him: "I think you're doing a grand job."

The other allegation being thrown at Mr Blair is that he is out of touch and in denial about Iraq. On the stump in the West Midlands, his aides turned the tables on his critics, saying: "It's they who are living in a bubble.

"In the real world, people are more worried about bread-and-butter issues than Iraq."

The main purpose of his visit was a "Big Conversation" event. Labour's listening exercise, which will inform its manifesto, was greeted with scepticism last year but ministers are now putting their efforts into meeting thousands of ordinary people. "Even Geoff Hoon is getting excited," quipped one Labour source.

However, the Government's progress on issues such as the economy and public services is being eclipsed by events in Iraq. That is why Labour MPs want him to have a Big Conversation with President Bush - and to make it public.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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