Blair needs the Labour Party more than it needs him - and his MPs know it

Their independence from the party line might save them at the next election, so a 'what the hell' attitude now dominates
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Predicting the future of personalities in politics for the year ahead is a mug's game. Who of us, writing at the same time last year, could have imagined that Tony Blair would have seen nearly one third of his Cabinet, formed after the last election, now residing on the backbenches? Clare Short, Robin Cook, Alan Milburn, Lord Irvine and Helen Liddell joined Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris, who left in 2002. Meanwhile, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Leader of the Lords, died and was replaced by Baroness Amos.

Although the individual circumstances were arguably less dramatic, the turnover rivals that of Harold Macmillan's infamous "night of the long knives" in 1962, when a third of the Cabinet was also replaced. And there may be more to come after Lord Hutton delivers his report in a fortnight's time. Rumour has it that the Prime Minister is likely to perform yet another re-shuffle, with Geoff Hoon at the Ministry of Defence first in the firing line.

The longer governments are in office, the greater the propensity to reshape, relaunch and reshuffle. Dead ministerial bodies continue to pile up on the backbenches. Meanwhile, Mr Blair persists with the refrain that he has no "reverse gear". Of all the speeches he has made, this phrase, used in his speech at this year's October party conference, will surely come back to haunt him in 2004. But I predict that, if he is to survive, Mr Blair had better find that reverse gear fast.

For the terms of political trade in the Labour Party have changed dramatically during the past 12 months. The tail now has a chance to wag the dog for the first time since Labour came to power nearly seven years ago. During 2003, Labour MPs found both their voices and their votes. For the health of democracy and Parliament, this has been no bad thing. Commentators have eased up on their complaints that Parliament no longer matters. The green shoots of a resurgent Commons as the cockpit of national political debate have taken us - and the Prime Minister - by surprise. The added ingredient of a potentially united and competent Opposition has reinvigorated the chamber, and debates are worth attending both for the content of speeches and even, more often than not, for the element of drama in the division lobbies. Labour MPs have, thankfully, seen that being lobby fodder by riding on Mr Blair's coat tails is no longer the easy ride to re-election - or even reselection.

The concept of "presidential coat tails" originated in the United States. Candidates for Congress during presidential election campaigns often hope to ride to victory on the back of their party's presidential nominee. Some presidential candidates have longer coat tails than others. Richard Nixon had short coat tails, but Ronald Reagan and George W Bush have benefited Republican congressmen, governors and senators. In the 1997 and 2001 general elections, there was little doubt that the popularity of Tony Blair assisted Labour MPs in winning and holding marginal seats. But many Labour backbenchers have worked out that if they are to hold their seats in 16 months' time (assuming a May 2005 election), it may be only on their own coat tails that Mr Blair will retain office.

Take Gisela Stuart, the MP for the marginal seat of Birmingham Edgbaston. Few of us will forget Ms Stuart, as a junior health minister, clinging to the Prime Minister on his election swing through a Birmingham hospital where he was mugged by an angry voter complaining at NHS treatment of her partner. A loyal, on-message Blairite, Ms Stuart was being rewarded by a Prime Ministerial visit to boost her re-election chances. Then she was unceremoniously dropped from the Government.

Ironically, this may help her to retain her seat more than she might have imagined at the time of her rather brutal sacking. For she has since discovered that she has a rather good mind of her own. I once wrote her off as a loyal "Blair babe" operated by the Whips' office pager. I now recant. Since she put her talents to good use on the presidium of the European Convention, drawing up the draft proposals for a European constitution, she has created her own coat-tails on which Mr Blair will ride if she wins Edgbaston next time. Her recent speeches and articles calling for a referendum or a free vote in the Commons are far more likely to endear her to her electors in 2005 than another visit by Mr Blair.

Those who already drive the Prime Minister and the Whips' office to distraction may yet save him at the polls. Bob Marshall Andrews represents the marginal seat of Medway and, according to yesterday's Independent report of a study by academics at the University of Nottingham, he is one of the six most rebellious Labour MPs, having voted against the Government 51 times since the 2001 election. Mr Marshall Andrews would be the first to concede that Tony Blair won his seat for him in 1997, when he was first elected. At that election he had no personal vote to trade on. But in a tight finish in 2005, Labour HQ will be banking on Mr Marshall Andrews' personal popularity among voters of no political allegiance to provide Mr Blair with the coat tails for Labour to retain Medway.

It may just be dawning on Mr Blair that he needs Labour more than Labour needs him. This probably accounts for his decision to override senior colleagues' advice to keep Ken Livingstone out of the party until the five-year expulsion period has expired. There is a realisation that Mr Blair has no coat tails to help Labour candidates to win in London. The decision by the local Labour Party in the Brent East by-election to expunge all acknowledgment of the Prime Minister's existence, and the flaunting of Mr Livingstone, the former MP for the constituency, in a desperate - albeit unsuccessful - attempt to stave off defeat, reinforced the space Labour candidates are putting between themselves and their leader.

There must be 50 or so Labour MPs who probably never expected that they would actually win in 1997. Most of them will have privately steeled themselves, on the day of their initial election, for subsequent defeat four years later. So the present Parliament has been an unexpected bonus. But even if Labour, under Mr Blair, wins for a third time, most of these know they may have only another 16 monthly pay cheques left. Progressively they are therefore in the driving seat in the division lobbies. There is just the chance that their independence from the party line might save them. So a "what the hell" attitude now dominates their thought processes.

Meanwhile, the terms of trade within the Conservative Party are changing in the reverse direction. Steve Norris, the party's London mayoral candidate, fought the 2000 election in the capital with the word "Conservative" all but expunged from his campaign. This time, with his chairmanship of the controversial rail maintenance contractor Jarvis a potential vote loser, he will need to cling to Michael Howard. Who has the longest coat tails in 2004, and whether Mr Blair finds reverse gear, will decide the outcome of the 2005 general election.