The voters of Brent East are privileged. They take part today in an event that is exceptional for these times: a parliamentary election of national significance whose outcome cannot be predicted. If Labour lose, which they could just do, it will - remarkably - be the first by-election loss by Labour under the Blair government. It will cast a shadow over the Labour party conference in 10 days' time. Rightly or wrongly, it will be taken as the first verdict by real voters - as opposed to those who answer the pollster's questionnaires - on Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, the death of David Kelly, and the progress of the Hutton inquiry.
While Labour is still optimistic of a narrow win, the Leader himself is prepared for a defeat. If it happens, the party machine will be quick to argue that the loss of Brent East would only be threatening if it was at the hands of the Conservatives. This is convenient since the Tories are out of the race and the only question is whether the Liberal Democrats can come from third place to take the seat in a way which will ensure that Charles Kennedy arrives in Brighton for his own conference next week in triumph.
As if to underscore the point yesterday, Mr Blair excoriated Mr Kennedy in a Commons exchange over Iraq by declaring that "the day we have the foreign policy of this country run by the Liberal Democrats is the day this country really would be at risk!" The era in which coalition once seemed possible, even to the point of including a senior Liberal Democrat at the Foreign Office, could hardly have seemed more distant.
Convenient, then, but also fully in line with the Blair analysis of his own political predicament. For it has to be said that the Prime Minister, nothing if not impressively resilient under pressure, doesn't look or sound like the man on the point of the political collapse that a cursory reading of the newspapers might suggest. He remains, by all accounts, quietly dismissive of the notion, in the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant, if subsequently over-used, phrase that a "tipping point" is fast approaching.
First, of course, this is because of the legendary weakness of the Conservative Opposition. (By contrast, even in the darkest days of Michael Foot's leadership, Labour managed to win the Birmingham Northfield by-election in 1982) And this means that there is nowhere for the British electorate to tip to. This isn't to decry the possibility of a large scale switch of disaffected Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats in the next general election. It is merely to point out that, because the vast majority of winnable seats for the LibDems are Conservative, Labour wouldn't be the main loser as a result.
Second, in the view of the most senior Blairites, it's because there isn't, for all the agonies over Iraq, an ideological tipping point either. This isn't 1979 or 1997, one of those big historic moments when the tectonic plates of public opinion shift irrevocably away from the administration in power. However personally exasperated large swaths of the electorate may be by Mr Blair at present, according to this account, they largely agree with the direction he is taking the country in, at least in relation to domestic policy. Which is why the Conservatives have yet to challenge the broad fundamentals of the money the government is spending and how it is trying to spend it.
All of which helps to explain the "no retreat, no surrender" message emanating from the higher reaches of Downing Street ahead of the party conference in Bournemouth. Mr Blair spent some of the summer immersing himself in the colourful history of the first Wilson government in the late Sixties. He emerged even more persuaded than before that it was when it funked reform - most notably, but not only, when it junked the trade union curbs in Barbara Castle's White Paper - that electoral support began to sap away from it.
Which is why, refusing to blunt the sharp edges of public service reform, he is still adamant about tuition fees - and still hopeful that MPs threatening to defeat the proposal can eventually be brought round by the need to finance world class universities in the UK; by the unfairness of those with low incomes paying for those with high incomes putting their children through higher education; and by the unpalatable alternative of reducing student numbers. And why he is still prepared to contemplate the radio-active notion of "co-payment" for public services, neatly arguing that Ken Livingstone has shown the way by imposing congestion charges.
He promises to be more collective, recognising, if belatedly, that his colleagues have also learnt much from six years in office. He will tell the party that both he and it need to learn the "maturity of incumbency": he needs to listen and consult more; and they need to curb their more adventurist attempts to divide and destabilise the Labour family. But from his basic goals, he shows no sign of resiling.
This may sound like a man inviting more trouble than he can handle because he is blithely unaware of the ones he already has. But it isn't. Mr Blair knows very well that trust is a big, perhaps the biggest, problem he faces. But he is not repentant. He appears deeply frustrated that others outside the ranks of the neo-cons can't see as clearly as he can the desperate perils of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terror groups.
Convinced that much of the coverage of Hutton has been tendentious, he remains confident that the Government's rectitude on what he sees as the central issue - of whether the Government doctored the intelligence and specifically of Andrew Gilligan's report that Alastair Campbell wrote in the notorious 45-minute claim - will be clearly demonstrated.
I'm far from sure he gets the extent of the collateral damage done by the evidence to Hutton of dissent within the intelligence community about the use to which their work was put by willing chiefs in support of a government case for war; or that it will long survive the demolition of the specific charge against Mr Campbell. Convinced that British and international interests were best served by uncritical support for a US President who might have gone even more unilateralist without it, I think he fails to take adequate account of how widely this view isn't shared.
But in one sense this isn't the point. Though clearly hopeful that the Iraq Survey Group will find some evidence of mass destruction weapons "programmes", if not product, he must know that rebuilding trust, even if to nowhere near the level of that glad, confident morning of 1 May 1997, could take a long time indeed. It may take as long, if it happens at all, for the Iraqi people to start enjoying the liberation dividend that has so far cruelly eluded them - the outcome which, above all, would allow him to start to put the political fall-out from the war behind him. Nothing if not a supreme political analyst, he must know that. Yet he seems girded for the struggle. He is in for the long haul now.Reuse content