John Rentoul: He is weary, but he won't quit

When the great persuader loses the will to persuade then it is time to go
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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister's advisers have been worrying about it all summer. It has been nagging at them almost as intrusively as the desire to check their texts and emails as they lay on their sun-loungers. (From my experience, some people's definition of a holiday is when they don't check their mobiles so often.) The question is: What is Tony going to say about "the transition" in his party conference speech in Manchester next month?

I have cracked it. Tony Blair should say this: "An election will be held under the party's rules as soon as possible, so that a successor can be announced in about six weeks' time."

He would, of course, be referring to the post of deputy leader of the Labour Party, which he would have persuaded John Prescott to vacate. That would give the press something to write about. It would give the plotters in the party something to plot about. It would give Alan Johnson the chance to test his support among the Labour tribes. And, if he won, it would raise the platform from which he could mount his challenge to Gordon Brown for the top job when that finally becomes vacant.

Sadly, such excitement is unlikely, not least because Prescott would resist pressure to stand down from the one post that is not in the Prime Minister's gift: that of elected deputy Labour leader. Blair is likely to be forced back on to the only other viable approach to the subject of his own departure - to treat it to a "complete ignoral".

I understand that some advisers in No 10 have been toying over the summer with the idea of Blair announcing a "timetable for a timetable" that might set out when he would say when he would stand down. This is nonsense, and in the split between "appeasers" and "ultras" that has opened up among Blairites, the ultras clearly have the better case.

For the Prime Minister to pronounce on his personal plans with any greater precision than he has already would not be the beginning of the end, it would be the end. His remaining authority, which has not diminished as much as his detractors would like, would vanish immediately. His speech in Manchester has to be devoted to what the party can achieve for the country, not to the timetabling of personal ambitions.

The fact is that Blair has already conceded too much to his enemies (those are, you remember, the ones on his own side, as opposed to his opponents in the Conservative Party). He should never have used that appeasers' phrase, promising to ensure "a stable and orderly transition" to his successor. I sincerely hope that he did not mean it, and that he was merely playing politics with a restive parliamentary party. Great prime ministers do not fret about handing over power tidily, with all the papers on the desk at right angles.

Harold Wilson spent far too much time planning his stable and orderly transition - it did nothing to enhance his reputation and his successor inherited a basket case. Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher all left office in a chaotic and disorderly fashion, but the manner of their leaving had little bearing on their historical reputations.

Blair has also been unwilling since last year's general election to restate his intention to serve a full third term, instead using devices such as "I've always said that" without repeating the words.

We do not know what kind of show of force the Chancellor has deployed behind the scenes to secure such careful language, nor what deals might have been brokered by Alastair Campbell. But they raise a critical question on the eve of the new political season. How much does Blair want to carry on?

Because the truth is that the wily master has outfoxed them all again. Brown is often accused of lacking the courage to strike, but the reality is that Blair has never given him the chance. It is already too late for the machinery of a leadership challenge to be cranked up at this year's annual conference, which opens in four weeks' time. So that means Blair is safe for another year - and even if a motion demanding a leadership election were carried next year, the rules are ambiguous about how soon that would have to be. If he wants to, Blair can remain as Prime Minister for another 18 months.

His position is analogous to that of Harold Macmillan in 1963. There was no political reason why he should have stood down, although many people in the Conservative party misjudged the situation and manoeuvred to force him out. Had he stayed on, he would almost certainly have held on against Harold Wilson in the 1964 election. (Which would probably have been good for the country, because it would have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before it did.) As it turned out, we now know that there was no medical reason for Macmillan to stand down either. It may be that his acceptance of his doctor's advice reflected his own sense of political exhaustion.

These things are a matter of will. One of the factors underlying Blair's success that is little appreciated is the extent to which he loves the game of politics. He knows that he is better, cleverer and quicker than almost all of his enemies and his opponents, and he revels in it. His reserves of personal, political and physical energy are extraordinary. But he did look tired before he went on holiday. Of course, people started to say that he looked old, grey and tired within moments of his election as Labour leader in 1994; and every time he bounced back after a few days or a few weeks rest.

Since the election, however, there has been a definite loss of focus. A new tone has entered into his speeches. It may be no more than that of saying what he really thinks, knowing that he does not have to face the voters again.

Sometimes, though, it seems to shade into a weary impatience at having to deal with all these impossible people who do not see the world with the same clarity as he does. When the great persuader finally loses the will to try to persuade - in other words, to relish the game of politics - then it would be time for him to give up.

No one can say whether that time is now - apart from Blair himself. Amazingly, he is still in charge of events rather than at their mercy. It is up to him.