The Week in Politics: Blair, go? Rubbish. It's merely the bucket's return

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"When you have been in this job for a while, you know that a load of stuff is going to get poured over your head," Tony Blair has been remarking lately. "You get used to it. It goes with the job," he says.

"When you have been in this job for a while, you know that a load of stuff is going to get poured over your head," Tony Blair has been remarking lately. "You get used to it. It goes with the job," he says.

His words remind me of John Major's conversation with Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of The Sun, on the day Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992. The Prime Minister nervously asked what sort of coverage to expect. "I've got this big bucket of shit," Mr MacKenzie replied, "and I'm going to tip it all over your head."

Well, the present Prime Minister has certainly had quite a lot of it poured over his head in the past two weeks. The botched announcement of a Europe referendum was bad enough. But the past seven days have been terrible. The second pillar of his foreign policy crumbled when 52 former senior diplomats wrote an unprecedented letter expressing concern over Iraq, the Middle East and his close relationship with President George Bush. And Mr Blair's own speech on Tuesday about immigration added to the impression he has lost his touch: his announcement of a "top to bottom review" of the immigration rules seemed crass just before today's expansion of the European Union. For the second week running, right-wing newspapers crucified him - even as he announced something they demanded.

Suddenly, the talking point among Labour MPs was not whether Mr Blair would resign after the referendum expected next autumn, but whether he would go this year. It was dismissed as "froth" by Blair allies. But there was an unmistakable feeling at Westminster that the tectonic plates had moved.

But there is another side to the story of the past fortnight. Mr Blair believes it was necessary to suffer some short-term pain on both Europe and immigration to achieve long-term gains. There is much talk in Downing Street of "clearing the decks" and "removing the nasties from the undergrowth".

The Tories certainly wish Mr Blair had not announced a referendum on Europe. "People are a bit deflated," one admitted on Thursday as Mr Howard launched his party's campaign for the European and local elections on 10 June.

The referendum announcement may have been messy, but Mr Blair believes it was right. "Don't say I didn't do this without weighing up the risks of it," he told me at his latest press conference, when I asked him whether pro-Europeans had not heard his promise to lead a great debate on Europe several times before.

The Prime Minister hopes his tough words on immigration, however panicky they may look, will also provide some much-needed insurance cover. The aim is to switch the spotlight to more fertile territory for Labour - public services and the economy - at next month's elections and, more importantly, at the general election expected next year.

Mr Blair believes he is still in a strong position on what he calls "the fundamentals". As one cabinet loyalist told me: "We have made mistakes in the process of government and there has been a problem of cabinet discipline over Europe and tuition fees. But the important thing is that the decisions Tony made are right. That will matter much more in the long run."

The departure of key Downing Street players, including Alastair Campbell, may have contributed to the recent problems. Fittingly, at a £500-a-head Labour fundraising dinner on Tuesday, Mr Blair joked in his opening speech he was "only the warm-up" for the main speaker, Mr Campbell.

Perhaps the end-of-an-era feel at Westminster has been compounded by a spate of political anniversaries. Tuesday's dinner came 10 years after the death of John Smith. Mr Blair became Prime Minister seven years ago today, and will soon complete 10 years as party leader. Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street 25 years ago on Monday.

Baroness Thatcher is much talked-about in the Blair camp these days as his aides study her mid-term blues. Seven years into her premiership, Labour was eight points ahead in the polls, according to Mori. Surely, given all Mr Blair's problems, the Tories should be well ahead today rather than neck and neck with Labour?

Lady Thatcher managed a successful fightback under the theme "the next moves forward", which trailed manifesto ideas for her successful 1987 re-election. Mr Blair is drawing up a similar plan and Labour's next manifesto will be unveiled at the party's autumn conference, "the critical moment", one Blair aide said yesterday.

So really there is no pressure from within the Labour Party for Mr Blair to go soon. He will only quit if he wants to, and there is no sign of that.

But it is true that something has changed. Mr Blair no longer defies the laws of political gravity. Normal politics has resumed, in which the Government gets into the substance described by Kelvin MacKenzie. A lot of it will indeed be poured over Mr Blair's head. But that does not mean he will soon depart the stage. His could be a very long goodbye.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

Comments