John Rentoul: Blair seems to have nothing but troubles in store, but he can and should carry on

The idea that what the British people wanted was Gordon Brown has been dispelled
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What is the point of Tony Blair carrying on? There is something about the symbolism of the new year that might encourage even him in that kind of maudlin reflection. The basic conditions of a departure with dignity were fulfilled during 2005. He won a third election, despite Iraq. Anti-war righteousness will harry him to his grave, but his decision to join the invasion of Iraq has been vindicated in the court of British democracy, just as it was vindicated in the court of nascent Iraqi democracy earlier this month. When he goes, no one can fairly say that he went because of his Iraq policy, although the bitterness it engendered has made everything else more difficult.

He has seen the British presidencies of the G8 and the European Union through to modest achievements. More modest than the vast rhetorical ambitions he sketched out for them, inevitably. Yet who, in the progressive consensus emerging in British politics, disagrees with the priorities he set? Climate change, Africa, farm subsidy reform.

With a more egotistical eye to his place in history, Blair will have noticed, even if no one else has (apart from his biographers), that on Wednesday he overtook Winston Churchill in longevity of prime ministerial service. He must know, too, that on New Year's Day he passes H H Asquith's total of eight years and 244 days. He will begin the new year as the longest-serving 20th-century prime minister apart from Margaret Thatcher. And he also knows that it will be a bit of a stretch to outlast her. He would have to stay in Number 10 for nearly three more years, until November 2008, to match her 11 years and 209 days.

Between now and then, he seems to face nothing but trouble. He set out the coming year's legislative programme at his pre-Christmas news conference with the insouciance of a condemned man reading out the charges against himself. Anti-social behaviour, incapacity benefit, pensions, primary health care, and, he added almost mischievously, there was "of course" the Schools Bill.

For the Glenda tendency in the Labour Party, all this points in the same direction: towards Gordon Brown. Glenda Jackson, it will be remembered, celebrated her re-election in support of a third consecutive Labour victory by writing an article for the anti-Labour Mail on Sunday calling on Blair to "go now". It now seems that her tendency has infiltrated the party at the highest levels and poses a greater threat than Militant ever did. One reason for this is its apparent reasonableness. Instead of ranting about nationalising the top 200 monopolies, its adherents point out, in a mild observational manner, the curiosity of the mismatch between Blair and Cameron. Indeed, as they say, there is something strange and temporary about politics at the moment, in which Blair stands proxy for the man who will almost certainly be Cameron's opponent at the next election. Let me at him, said Brown's body language as he hunched restlessly next to Blair at Cameron's first joust at Prime Minister's Questions.

And why not, asks the Glenda tendency seductively. Why not get on with it and get Gordon in? Because it would be undemocratic, that's why. The Glenda tendency and the Tory press have two striking things in common. One is that they hate Tony Blair, and the other, which follows from that, is that they cannot accept the result of the general election. They do not put it like that, of course. What they say is that the 10 million people who voted Labour were not doing so on the basis that Tony Blair would serve a "full third term". Nor were they voting for an "unremittingly New Labour" manifesto. If they only but knew it, they were voting for Gordon Brown and something approximating to the manifesto on which John Smith ran for the Labour leadership in 1992.

This leads to some strange contortions. Kevin Barron, an excellent campaigning Labour MP, this week explained why he was not bound by the Labour manifesto: "The policy which materialised in the manifesto had not gone through the rigorous procedures brought in in the Eighties to ensure that we were all in agreement." He was talking about the policy on smoking, urging his colleagues to vote for a complete ban when the manifesto promised a partial one.

And similar intellectual gymnastics are being performed by Labour MPs preparing to vote against the Government on schools policy. They claim that the schools White Paper deviates from the manifesto. Yet the manifesto spoke of "driving innovation through diversity of provision" and power in the hands of parents. It specifically said: "Where new educational providers can help boost standards and opportunities in a locality we will welcome them into the state system, subject to parental demand, fair funding and fair admissions." Had John Prescott read it before he attacked his Government's own policy in his pre-Christmas interview?

Of course, the doctrine of the manifesto cannot be as precise as all that. When Tony Benn hailed the 1983 election defeat as "eight and a half million votes for socialism" on the basis of a shopping-list of hard-left demands he was plainly deluded. In general terms, however, the voters knew what the parties stood for in this year's election. The Prime Minister was putting himself forward for a full third term, on a New Labour platform of reform of the public services. Even diluted as it has been to the extent that it might almost be a homeopathic remedy, the schools White Paper is better than what is on offer from either left or right. "All power to the Local Education Authority soviets" with Estelle Morris is no more appealing than a return to explicit selection with David Willetts. (In passing, can we dispense with the slur that Blair will "rely on Tory votes" to get his Bill through? He will rely on the Tories not voting against, which is quite different.)

The idea that what the British people really wanted was a more left-wing prospectus and Gordon Brown has been dispelled like the misty delusion it was by the arrival of David Cameron.

The election of a credible Conservative prime-minister-candidate has had a modest impact on the Tory party's standing in the opinion polls. But it has had a devastating effect on Gordon Brown's apparent popularity as the greener-grass candidate. For some time, polls have suggested Labour would do better if the Chancellor became leader, but that advantage has vanished now, raising the possibility that it was a mirage. Safer in any case to stick with what people actually voted for. Real votes in real ballot boxes, as any politician says when pressed on the significance of adverse opinion polls.

On that basis, Tony Blair should carry on as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future because that is what the people voted for just seven months ago.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is a biographer of Tony Blair and chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday

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