The Week in Politics: Stand by for Blair's next make-or-break week

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Next week has been dubbed "the Four Bs" in Downing Street - Brown, Berlusconi, Butler and by-elections. It is certainly going to be a big week, and it might even help to determine how long a fifth "B" - Blair - remains as Prime Minister.

Next week has been dubbed "the Four Bs" in Downing Street - Brown, Berlusconi, Butler and by-elections. It is certainly going to be a big week, and it might even help to determine how long a fifth "B" - Blair - remains as Prime Minister.

On Monday, Gordon Brown will publish his three-year spending blueprint. On Tuesday, Mr Blair will host an Anglo-Italian summit. On Wednesday, Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary, will deliver his report on the pre-war intelligence about Iraq's weapons, which is awaited nervously in No 10. On Thursday, Labour faces two decidedly tricky by-elections in Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill, fearing defeat by the Liberal Democrats in the former and a close shave in the latter.

First to Mr Brown. His government-wide spending review will mark a shift away from the heated debate between Labour and the Tories over health and education in recent weeks. The Chancellor is keen to "move on" to other issues such as crime, national security, defence, transport, housing, the under-fives, his anti-poverty agenda and overseas aid - and with good reason. In all these areas, he will tell MPs on Monday, Labour will outspend the Tories.

Mr Brown's Budget in March was shaped by a premature announcement four weeks earlier by Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, that the Tories would spend more than Labour on health and education but freeze other budgets in order to cut the growth in overall spending planned by Labour. His aim was to neutralise health and education and leave room for a pre-election pledge to cut taxes.

The Tories' move allowed Mr Brown to transform a dull-looking Budget. He will now repeat the trick after what has been a tight spending round. Big increases already announced for health and education mean that other departments will be squeezed. But I suspect the Chancellor will still manage to get a big bang for small bucks, helped by his "dividing line" with the Tories.

Ministers believe the Tories have repeated the mistake Labour made before the 1992 general election, when John Smith's "shadow budget" gave the Major government some much-needed ammunition.

The Tories, however, are unrepentant. Back in February, Michael Howard judged that the Tories could not afford to wait any longer to declare their hand because the voters had little idea what they stood for. They should have a better idea after the party's announcements on health and education in the past two weeks, though I bet most people are confused by the fog about "choice" from the two main parties.

In the coming week their buzzword will be "waste" and there will be a battle of the wastebusters. Mr Brown will confirm plans to cut 80,000 Whitehall jobs and be backed up by Sir Peter Gershon, his efficiency adviser, who has worked up detailed plans with each department. Mr Letwin will trump that with the help of David James, the troubleshooter who rescued the Millennium Dome project. Mr Letwin believes the voters will be sceptical about pledges to cut waste by a government that has been in power for seven years and has a list of previous promises to cut waste and jobs that, he claims, have not been delivered. He is banking on voters sharing the Tories' concern that much of the money pumped into public services has been wasted.

The Tories will contrast Mr Brown's instinctive commitment to "big government" with their promise to bring in "small government". They are looking for a big, symbolic gesture to illustrate this point. The only problem is that Mr Brown has already done the obvious one by giving independence to the Bank of England. After the "four Bs", will there be a fifth one next Friday? "Blair" resigns, perhaps? Some of Mr Brown's acolytes have not given up hope that Mr Blair will be gone by the end of this month and the Chancellor crowned Labour leader at the party's annual conference in September.

I suspect they will be disappointed. True, Mr Blair will have a bad week next week while Mr Brown a good one, a contrast that will not be lost on Labour MPs. But Mr Blair seems in no mood to give up and it is difficult to see how he can be forced out.

The Prime Minister is in a stronger position than what allies call his "last worst week" in January, when some commentators were predicting his demise ahead of the Hutton report and a crucial Commons vote on university top-up fees. The Butler report will be worse for him than Hutton. But his aides are predicting that it will not contain a "silver bullet" and will prove to be what one called "a one-and-a-half day wonder".

What else could happen on Friday? Blair reshuffles his Cabinet? Possibly, but it might be delayed a while because last year's shake-up was so botched. The B-word Downing Street has in mind is a "blitz" of announcements to show the Government has not been blown off course by events. Yesterday, No 10 was searching for a "good news" story for Friday and was taking a close interest in a Department of Health blueprint to improve NHS dentistry. A fitting way, perhaps, to bring back that Blair smile at the end of his latest "worst week".