John Rentoul: Gordon is being a good boy. But he'll have to wait a while yet for his reward

If re-elected, he said, he would serve a full third term, but he would not lead the party into a fourth election. It was a puzzling announcement at the time, a year ago this week, after the annual conference in Bournemouth had folded its display stands - not least because it was combined with two others. One was that he was to undergo a minor operation to correct his heart flutter. The other was that he and Cherie had bought a £3.6m house near Marble Arch. The heart business turned out to be exactly what he said it was - minor - while the house was evidence, a bit like thunder, of something that had happened some time before. It seems, at the end of 2003, that he began to plan for the possibility, with the Hutton and Butler reports before him, of standing down. But by last year's conference, he had survived and was focused on how to win the election.

Amateur constitutionalists pronounced gravely on how it was unprecedented for a prime minister to term-limit himself in this way: that it would weaken him and power would start to drain away. It is true that there has been some shuffling towards the door marked Gordon Brown, but there has been no rush for the exit. And Blair has gained more than he has lost. Above all, he has drawn the sting of the hostility he has attracted since the build-up to war in Iraq. The media swarm that is constantly seeking ways to attack and dislodge him can gain little purchase. Hardly anyone in the Labour Party is organising to get rid of him because there is no point - he is going anyway. Members of the party's National Executive, which by tradition meets at lunchtime today to fix the week's business, say their phones are silent and reminisce wistfully about the days when they would be lobbied furiously by the leader's office or dissident factions.

Every year, journalists predict trouble at the seaside for Blair, and every year the delegates disappoint, by according the party's greatest election winner the respect he deserves. This election year, one suspects, more than before.

The endless stories of tension between Blair and Brown have ebbed, too, because Brown is not pushing to get rid of Blair, only to influence the timing of his departure. And in that, Blair has finally designed the right incentive structure for his impatient rival. Brown knows that co-operation not confrontation is more likely to encourage Blair to go sooner rather than later.

It is working? Is Brown's conspicuous loyalty during the election campaign, and low profile since, paying off? The growing assumption over the summer is that Blair's supporters are talking up the idea that the Prime Minister might go on for another three years, in order to give him the space to go before then at a time of his choosing. Maybe. Maybe this will be Blair's last conference as leader. He remains inscrutable, even to those close to him.

Some wondered about his conference speech, the writing of which has been later than ever this year. One intimate, who had still not seen a text at the start of last week, said lightly: "It's only Monday." Another, midweek, borrowed the party's slogan from the 2001 election: "A lot done, a lot still to do." This is a speech that, in the old days, would take six months to write, with Blair complaining that it had hung over his summer like a black cloud.

But being late with his homework is just as likely to be a mark of Blair's growing confidence as it is of his detachment. The only thing one needs to know in analysing a situation such as this is that political leaders, having made it to the top, and often feeling that they have gone through a lot to push through their programme, tend not to give up easily. There is a glaring and revealing contradiction in Blair's pre-conference line on the question of the succession. He says he wants to stay on to see through reform of the public services - and also that Gordon Brown completely agrees with him. In which case he could safely leave the task to him.

Guess which is the real Blair? There is one issue of substance at this Labour conference, and that is the question of using private providers to expand capacity in the NHS. The conference ritual is well established by now. The leadership will be defeated, because the unions will vote against, but Blair will point out that most of the constituency delegates voted for him and ignore the result. But the deeper story is that Brown's position on this question is at best ambiguous. He has never recanted his wrong-headed insistence in 2003 that "equality of access can best be guaranteed not just by public funding of health care but by public provision".

This is the struggle at the heart of the third term. Brown was forced, at metaphorical gunpoint, at the launch of the election manifesto to point out that "the references to 'private' are very strong". Indeed, the manifesto was - in health and education, at least - unremittingly New Labour. Of course, the doctrine of the manifesto does not have quite the hold on the Labour Party that it used to if the party does not, in its heart of hearts, agree with it. Or if it hasn't actually got round to reading it. But there is some evidence that Blair is beginning to win this argument. An opinion poll for the BBC's Politics Show today finds that 80 per cent think that "more choice in the provision of public services" is a "good idea". No surprise there, except for Charles Kennedy who says that people don't want choice: what they want is a good local hospital or school. But 51 per cent also say they would "like to see private companies providing a greater share of public services". For years, public opinion has been allergic to the word "private" anywhere near public services.

Yet the "choice revolution" is only just under way in the public services, because it didn't really begin until the second Blair term, and it will take another three years, for example, for NHS patients to be free to go wherever the waiting list is shortest. Blair wants to see this through, and thinks he can drive it forward better than anyone else. With the tactic of announcing that he will not fight the next election, he has bought himself time. The best guess, surely, is that he will use it.

One of Blair's people predicts that he will go in the autumn of 2007 if Brown is co-operative; and in the spring of 2008 if he is not. Given what we know of how Blair regards his Chancellor, 2008 it is, then.

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