John Rentoul: So Blair wins a third term and what thanks does he get?

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard has performed one valuable public service as leader of the Conservative Party. By resigning on Friday, he reminded us who lost the general election. Not that he managed to deflect the media herd.

On Friday morning, historians were looking back to Clement Attlee in 1950, according to the Daily Mail, "to find a government that suffered as badly as Tony Blair's but still managed to cling to power". (A historian writes: Attlee's majority was cut from 147 to 5.) By yesterday, the Mail had consulted psychologists as well as historians to discover that Blair had been "humiliated". The question dominating all the front pages was: "How long can he go on?" The commentary was virtually unanimous: because he had done so badly in the election, Blair would be forced to hand over to Gordon Brown sooner rather than later.

Instead it was Howard who was off sooner rather than later. His surprise announcement drew attention to the fact that, under him, the Conservative share of the vote had increased by less than it did last time under William Hague. Against Hague's mighty achievement of raising the Tory share of the vote by 1.5 percentage points, Howard managed to increase it by 0.5 points. The difference in the number of seats gained - 33 rather than one - was largely the by-product of a large slice of Labour votes going over this time to the Liberal Democrats. Blair's warning was proved right. Labour supporters voting Lib Dem may not have let "the" Tories in, but they let Tories in.

So the story of the election was that the Liberal Democrats cut Labour's majority from 160 to 66. How that can be portrayed as anything other than a stunning third victory escapes me. As Michael Portillo put it, Blair beats Margaret Thatcher on aggregate over the three legs of the electoral history competition. His majorities were bigger than her majorities, and his current majority would have been regarded as an impossible dream by any Labour leader since Harold Wilson.

Oh but he won't be able to get all that radical Blairite stuff through the House of Commons, say his detractors knowingly. Might as well get Gordon in now. This is just silly. Most of the items that offend liberal commentators, such as identity cards, reforming incapacity benefit and having more independent providers in healthcare and education, were in the manifesto. As they were before the election, Downing Street policy makers are more worried about the House of Lords than trouble from their own side in the Commons. One issue that might be tricky is the renewal of the control order powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, on which the Labour left, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives can unite. But that would be no bad thing.

Yeah but no but, say the critics, Little Britain style. Blair may have a solid majority in the Commons but 36 per cent of the vote - the lowest ever for a winning party - is not a sound foundation for democratically legitimate government. It isn't, but it is not as bad as it seems. For one thing, who knows how people might vote under a different electoral system? One of the features of the growing bias in British elections is that Labour voters in safe Labour seats do not bother to turn out, unlike Tories in safe Tory seats. More important, if Liberal Democrat voters had to choose between a Labour government or a Conservative one, they would prefer Labour by a margin of two to one, according to The Independent on Sunday's penultimate opinion poll of the campaign.

That is a reversal of the position in the 1980s, when progressives used to bemoan the division of the anti-Conservative majority into Labour and SDP-Liberal Alliance camps. Then, Alliance supporters preferred Thatcher to Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock by a two-to-one margin.

The big point about politics now, surely, is that most of the Liberal Democrat vote is still potentially part of the New Labour coalition. As much as 5 per cent of the electorate is parked temporarily on Charles Kennedy's lawn, but they are essentially Labour supporters protesting about Iraq or the nexus of Labour "betrayals" that it stands for. Or you could put it the other way round. Whatever Liberal Democrat voters are, they are a long way from being part of a Conservative revival.

With no sign that anyone in the Conservative parliamentary party even begins to understand the scale of the task of reconstruction required, that means that we are heading for a Labour landslide next time. With Gordon Brown as leader, those voters borrowed by the Liberal Democrats should come flooding back to the fold. Far from the scenario of Brown's nightmare, widely canvassed this weekend - that he might end up as a failed John Major figure at the tail end of an exhausted Blair administration - it must be more likely that he would revive New Labour and embed it as the natural party of government.

So Labour is in power for 12 years with every prospect of extending it to 16. The terms of political trade have been reversed so that, instead of Labour having to promise to stick to Conservative public spending limits to get elected, the Conservatives have to promise to stick to Labour spending increases to try to get elected. (And still they fail.) And what thanks does Tony Blair get from his MPs for this extraordinary achievement? Grumbling about a handover to the Chancellor later this year. Why? How?

The idea that the reduced majority weakens Blair is a weird media conspiracy. It is true because the press says so, but there is no reason for it. The Prime Minister is weakened by the fact that he has said that he will not contest the next election, but that has nothing to do with the size of the Government's majority. That power is ebbing from Blair to Brown is the cliché of the moment. Blair is worried about it. So worried that he corrected one interviewer before the election: "You've got the power of patronage, that's what keeps a prime minister powerful."

That is why Friday's reshuffle was slightly peculiar. Blair did not consult Brown as fully as the Chancellor expected. The Chancellor cannot have welcomed David Blunkett's appointment to Work and Pensions, previously a wholly owned subsidiary of the Treasury. But Brown is not the only person who might be offended by Blunkett's early return from the sin bin - "no special favours ... but a bit quicker", to quote the famous email received by Blunkett's private office. The former home secretary is a weakened figure. The rest was mostly a Brown-friendly shuffle. Blair was insisting on his prerogative but trying to work with Brown.

How this parliament works out depends on the Chancellor. If he is being difficult, it won't matter what the majority is, as the tuition fees vote proved last year when it was carried by a margin of five. If he is co-operating, a majority of 10 would be enough. Brown should want to inherit a successful Labour government before renewing it with the landslide of 2009. It is up to him.

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