Ten years on, his party is sullen, the voters feel betrayed - and Blair is rejuvenated

The smoke signals from No 10 suggest that he might serve a full third term and fight a fourth election
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Ten years ago today, I watched a fresh-faced Tony Blair make his acceptance speech after being elected Labour's youngest ever leader. Fittingly, the words that come back to me spontaneously are all about "trust": as I recall, he warned Labour that it still needed to earn the voters' trust, even though the Tory government had already lost it. And he added that, because the party had placed its trust in him, he would never betray that trust.

Ten years ago today, I watched a fresh-faced Tony Blair make his acceptance speech after being elected Labour's youngest ever leader. Fittingly, the words that come back to me spontaneously are all about "trust": as I recall, he warned Labour that it still needed to earn the voters' trust, even though the Tory government had already lost it. And he added that, because the party had placed its trust in him, he would never betray that trust.

A decade on, the question of trust is back, albeit in a form that a greying Blair would never have wanted or predicted. His decision to take the country to war - on what, after the Butler report, is unquestionably a false prospectus - has rightly made the issue of trust in the Prime Minister a central question in British politics.

That Blair has lost the trust of many people in the country and his own party is beyond doubt. How to win it back is a matter over which his closest advisers agonise: all they have come up with so far is to deliver on his repeated pledges to turn round public services.

The opinion polls show that people believe Blair lied over Iraq's weapons and, by an increasing margin, think the war was unjustified. He is so unpopular that, in last month's European and council elections and last week's parliamentary by-elections, Labour had to banish him from its literature. Hardly a good sign with a general election looming, and a challenge to the Blairites who claim he is the only one who can maintain the coalition of the middle and working classes which voted Labour into power in 1997.

The euphoria of that "new dawn" is a distant memory. Today, the Labour Party is sullen. Many in it never loved Blair, who admitted he wasn't born into it, regarding him as a closet Tory whose clique mounted a takeover of the party. The man who dreamed of creating a mass party of one million members has seen its membership more than halve to 190,000. For many of the disappeared, Iraq was the last straw. Between 60 and 70 Labour MPs want to oust Blair now, and would go public. But they need more than 80 signatures to trigger a leadership contest, and know it won't happen.

Even in the Cabinet, there are open minds about whether Blair is the right man to lead Labour into the general election. Of course, the Blairites whose places would be at risk under Prime Minister Brown were quick to stiffen Blair's spine when they detected a wobble at the height of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. Naturally, the Brownites want their man to take over now. But senior ministers in the middle, when asked about Blair's future, shrug their shoulders and say it is "up to Tony". Hardly a deafening call to go on and on, but also no sign they will plot to remove him. Crucially, John Prescott, the pivotal figure, remains ultra loyal.

Barring a dramatic crisis on the ground in Iraq, Labour critics will be reluctant to rock the boat as next May's election approaches. The last pre-election exit door probably closed when Blair survived yesterday's Commons debate on Iraq, after Michael Howard's attack was again blunted by the Tories' support for the war. The Prime Minister displayed all his renewed confidence. Sadly, he saw no need to show the contrition that, as Charles Kennedy said, the British people want to see. They might be looking for some at the election.

Yet the reverberations from last week's by-elections are stronger in the Conservative Party, which is beginning to doubt Howard's judgement, than in Labour. Yesterday's ICM poll showed a string of poor ratings for Blair - and Labour five points ahead of the hapless Tories. Ten years ago, Blair would have given his right arm for that, seven years into government. If the Tories were five points ahead, the "should Blair stay or go" equation would look different: the Tories' weakness makes Blair look stronger than he really is.

"He's been through the fire, but he has emerged stronger from his ordeal", is a typical comment from the Blair inner circle. The wobble is now firmly in the past; he is said to be "100 per cent" sure he will lead the party into the election. The Blairites are already rehearsing their answers to the most inevitable question of the campaign: would Blair serve a full third term? The only way to answer is honestly, argue his aides. So he is formulating a response which is bound to disappoint his Chancellor.

The prospect that he would quit after the referendum on the European constitution, expected in the spring of 2006, is receding. Blair, it seems, wants to go on and on beyond that; there is so much still to achieve. Fittingly, Blair will mark his anniversary by launching a journal published by the modernisers' group Progress in which Alan Milburn calls for a "new Clause 4" approach to be applied to public services.

The smoke signals from No 10 suggest Blair now has no fixed departure date in mind. That means he might serve a full third term and fight a fourth election, or might quit a year before that fourth election.

Such talk seems horribly presumptuous. It will also irritate Brown, whose frustration has bubbled menacingly above the surface in recent weeks. Expectations in the Chancellor's circle that Blair would stand down this month were so high that a senior Brown lieutenant recently asked Baroness Morgan of Huyton, a close Blair aide, when it was going to happen.

To understand the Chancellor's impatience, we have to wind the clock back 10 years. Before John Smith's death, Brown was unquestionably the senior partner in his modernisers' double act with Blair. At the time, I was a regular trawler of the Shadow Cabinet corridor at Westminster on which Blair and Brown had adjoining offices. A vivid memory is of Blair saying: "I'll ask Gordon", and popping next door to get Brown's advice on a speech or policy statement - or even the answer to a tricky question.

Despite all the power at his disposal at the Treasury, Brown's impatience to grab all the levers is understandable. But when his rumblings become public, they can destabilise the Government. "The divide between their two camps is like a fault line running through the Government," one Cabinet minister said yesterday. "It has got to be resolved, one way or the other."

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that Brown will be offered the Foreign Office in the next reshuffle. It won't happen; Brown would prefer the backbenches. More sensible Blair allies talk about cementing the "team leadership" in which Blair and Brown, working in tandem, make a formidable partnership.

Although a new generation of future leadership contenders will be promoted when Blair reshuffles his Cabinet, there is no reason why any of them should overtake Brown in the next five years.

"He is the Michael Schumacher of the Labour Party," said one close Blair ally. "He is simply miles ahead of anyone else."

Many Labour folk are convinced we have now reached the beginning of the end of the Blair era. Remarkably, for a rejuvenated Blair, as he ticks another box on the calendar today, it feels more like the end of the beginning.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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