If Mr Blair wants to stay on he should change his style

'The best bet must be that he did mean to convey his intention not to stand down in the next parliament'
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The Independent Online

Enoch Powell's famous observation that political careers invariably end in failure is largely born out by the fate of prime ministers over the past 60 years or more. In that period only Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill - albeit in the exceptional circumstances that he was over 80 and still remarkably slow to go - and Harold Wilson can be said to have left truly of their own accord. In every other case they were either ousted in office like Neville Chamberlain or Margaret Thatcher, or left after either illness or electoral defeat, like Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Home, Heath, Callaghan and Major.

Enoch Powell's famous observation that political careers invariably end in failure is largely born out by the fate of prime ministers over the past 60 years or more. In that period only Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill - albeit in the exceptional circumstances that he was over 80 and still remarkably slow to go - and Harold Wilson can be said to have left truly of their own accord. In every other case they were either ousted in office like Neville Chamberlain or Margaret Thatcher, or left after either illness or electoral defeat, like Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Home, Heath, Callaghan and Major.

It is a safe bet that Blair's strong preference is to be in the Baldwin/Wilson category in this respect, though probably not in many others. He has certainly envisaged a career after the premiership, telling Robert Harris in an interview that he had another future job in mind though without saying what it was. He isn't the kind of man, or at the stage of life, to regard mere longevity as the main criterion of success. All these might be advanced as reasons to be sceptical about the interpretation put on his latest remarks on his medium-term intentions, namely that he will stay for all of the next parliament.

And there's another one. What really can prime ministers say if they do intend to stand down in the next parliament? If they give the merest hint opponents gleefully declare the electors don't know who they are voting for. Finally, if all Blair needs is a place in history, then such is the Labour Party's benighted electoral past, the mere act of winning an election in office decisive enough to ensure a second full term would itself be a historic act.

But it would be an odd prime minister - especially one for whom party is not the only purpose in life - who regarded that as enough; who did not make the realisation of some wider, national goal the true test of his term of office. The best bet, despite the oddity that he did not say so explicitly, must be that he did indeed mean to convey an intention not to stand down in the middle of the next parliament.

If that's the case, is Gordon Brown rampaging round the Treasury kicking wastebins and uttering furious and strangled cries of stunned disappointment? It's doubtful. On the one hand, rumour regularly surfaces in the outer fringes of the Brown circle to the effect that the Prime Minister is keeping the seat warm for a Brown succession within a year or two of the next election. On the other, that isn't, at least in my experience, the private line of the closer Brown allies who profess to great scepticism about just such a scenario.

If they are telling the truth, Brown cannot exactly be surprised by the Blair remarks yesterday. But in any case the Blair words did not quite eliminate the possibility that if, say, he led Britain into EMU after a historic referendum triumph, while continuing to preside over benign economic circumstances and being seen to fulfil what now looks like Blairism's paramount goal of saving the public services (for economic as well as social reasons) he might be tempted to leave on what would be a remarkable high note shortly before the end of the next parliament. Moreover, this points to what may seem like a stunning conventional-wisdom-defying paradox, given the real and periodic tensions between Brown and Blair. Which is that it is actually in Brown's personal interests for Blair to succeed.

This may all be dancing on a pin, of course. If Blair said he was going to stay for the whole parliament and then didn't, he would hardly be retrospectively denounced for it. He may even have stopped short of saying it explicitly for no better reason than to avoid causing anguish to Gordon Brown, whom he has more or less publicly endorsed as his preferred successor. But then it isn't, as Brown will know, wholly in the incumbent's gift to bestow the succession, least of all well in advance. Huge as Brown's claim may be to be the "if I fell out of a helicopter" candidate - as Margaret Thatcher modernised the old cliché about being running over by a bus - it's not the only one.

David Blunkett's well-attested grip of his office, his ability to think beyond his own immediate department, his popularity in the party, even the fact that he is unlike - despite recent suggestions to the contrary - Gordon Brown, not in the modernisers' inner loop, could in the right circumstances make him a formidable rival. Secondly, Brown's capacity to ride roughshod over his colleagues means that relations, at least with the Cabinet, could do with repair. Impressive as the outcome of the spending review has been, there are several in the Cabinet who have found it a bruising process, and remain convinced that it should have been more generous still. One or two - beyond that is, the famously dysfunctional relationship between Peter Mandelson and the Chancellor - even profess to be baffled by the steadfastness of Blair's loyalty to his Chancellor.

Nevertheless, if the mood in the party is that Blair's purpose was intended to scotch speculation about an early handover, it will be all to the good. One of the most depressing aspects of the leadership mentality, particularly in the period before the local elections, revealed in the recent leaks is a sense of panic wholly at variance with the circumstances. If this is how these people react when they are well ahead in the polls, how would they cope with a real crisis?

Many of the answers to this have been well rehearsed, including a recognition - which, to be fair, Blair in his best periods undoubtedly has - that to be right is not always to be popular in the short term. But there may be another: which is that it could be time to extend that famous inner circle a little.

The other aspect of the leaks has been to emphasise how far political direction lies with the original modernisers. But Blunkett and Straw are modernisers too. Even Margaret Beckett with her schoolmistressly ability to defend the Government, has proved to be a safe pair of hands. This is not to suggest a formalised Wilson-style inner Cabinet. But it is to make the point that it may be sensible for Blair to take some more of his senior Cabinet members into his confidence more frequently.

Margaret Thatcher wasn't - to put it mildly - exactly a Cabinet person either. But as a vanguardist of the right, she always had the party activists on her side, even when she was most opposed, in private at least, by most of the Cabinet. Blair, for all his Thatcher-like hegemony, is not umbilically linked to the pulse of the party as she was. This may not matter fundamentally for a long time to come - if ever. But it speaks strongly for a gradual shift to a somewhat more collegiate style of government in case it ever does.

There are sometimes complaints from the centre that Cabinet ministers are not "political" enough. But being more political means a slightly greater sense of ownership of the New Labour adventure than even the most senior ministers have been afforded to date. Who knows? It might just make it easier, rather than more difficult, for Blair if he chooses, in Margaret Thatcher's ringing phrase, to go "on and on".

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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