John Rentoul: Ruthless, amoral and staying

MPs report a sharp reaction in their constituencies to the secret loans
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The Independent Online

When's he going to go, then? That is the question that has been asked insistently for 10 days, ever since Jack Dromey emerged from behind the arras. Working itself up into a lather of partly justified outrage over the sale of peerages, much of the fourth estate has decided that Tony Blair can't go on. This is as rational as a speculative bubble on the stock market - it is basically sentiment.

It is true, nevertheless, that the media, if they are unanimously and persistently hostile, can make life so difficult for a leader that they sap the will to carry on - not usually of the leader himself but of those around him upon whom he depends. Like a stock-market overshoot, that has practical effects. We have been here before. I know, because my phone is a seismometer of the trouble the Prime Minister is in. Having written a book about him, I am sometimes called and asked to make a comment about his prospects. When I get several calls from abroad, the long-distance tremors suggest a six or seven on the Richter scale of political disturbance. Last week it was America, Sweden and Australia - although that was partly because he is in Australia this weekend. Perhaps the Prime Minister hopes that by getting as far away from Britain as physically possible (he is in New Zealand later this week) he will be able to view his situation in its true perspective.

It is a beguiling prospect: that the view from the other side of the world would simplify matters against which we here are pressed too close. But the news from these islands that trickles into the media pools of other countries tends to be headline-based and context-free. If anything, the secondary reporting of British news emphasises even more the role of the media in making Blair's life difficult. My American and Swedish colleagues were slightly surprised to learn that there is no great public appetite for Blair's head and no realistic prospect that his opponents, either in his own party or others, will force him from office.

Who can be surprised at their surprise, when the publicly funded BBC has become so brazen that Jeremy Paxman introduced Newsnight on Monday by asking: "How long before he gets kicked upstairs?" And answered his own question thus: "A Newsnight poll suggests sooner rather than later." It suggested no such thing. It found that voters split roughly equally between those who wanted him to stand down this year, and those who wanted him to stay on. The latter half included what was, even to me, a surprisingly high proportion of the total, 21 per cent, who wanted him to renege on his promise and to stand again at the next election.

Of course, media bias is not the whole story, and the "loans for lordships" affair - a tag taken up with particular enthusiasm in Australia - is more damaging than most of the media confections that pass for crises most weeks. The point about it, apart from the dimmer view that history will take of Blair's pretence of propriety, is that the Labour Party absolutely hates it. The idea that its members might feel pride, as Blair expressed it at his last news conference, that the party attracted support and money from successful business people is not of this world.

The party in the country was already in a state of cryogenic suspension, paralysed by the wait for Gordon, about whom it harbours deep reservations, and worn out by the Iraq war and the compromises of government. But the secret loans make matters worse, and MPs report a sharp reaction from their constituencies. Already the most rebellious bunch in the modern history of whipping, despite ignorant bleatings about the excessive power of the executive, a growing minority of Labour MPs will continue to vote against Blair regardless.

In the arguments that raged over the Education Bill, one Labour MP snarled that the Prime Minister was pursuing a "scorched earth" policy, recklessly pressing on with a course that would weaken the morale of the party so badly that Brown would inherit a smoking wasteland. It is worse than he thinks. He meant it as a criticism of Blair, but one suspects that it would be taken as a compliment.

The secret loans were a scorched earth policy. Blair had an election to win and knew he would not have to fight another. He was up against a well-funded Tory party that had perfected the use of loans over the years. He knew that in the balance of posterity, winning a third election would weigh more heavily than abiding by the spirit of the rules on fundraising.

It was the same calculation in the Education Bill vote. He tried hard to meet the concerns of the disenchanted middle of his own party, but in the end seized the chance to lock in the reforms on which he will be judged in the long term. The charge of relying on Tory votes matters less to him than the hope that historians will look back on this Bill as the key to bringing in new providers and outside sponsors of schools that saved the state education system.

The media buzz about how Blair will find the going so tough that he will - sooner rather than later, a meaningless phrase of spurious judiciousness - do a Captain Oates, misunderstands the man.

We should know by now that Blair is a politician of a ruthlessness and procedural amorality that is sometimes breathtaking. Gordon Brown knows that, even if the rest of us do not. The repeated promises Blair made to him have been broken almost without embarrassment. Blair is a supremely creative and opportunistic politician who does things because he can. For a higher purpose, of course. He cannot be sure that his successor would do the right thing. Would Brown keep the promise he made to the Iraqi people that British troops would stay as long as their elected government wanted them there? Would Brown keep up the pressure for reform of the public services - which, if not maintained, might open them to dismantling by the Conservatives?

Blair has been damaged further, again. But the extraordinary truth is that, this time next year, my phone could still be ringing with the same question.

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