John Rentoul: Two people will save Blair: his Chancellor and the next Leader of the Opposition

Analogies made with The Dog Days of John Major were faulty
Click to follow

Nothing much happened in British politics last week. The House of Commons voted to double from 14 to 28 days the length of time that the police may hold suspected terrorists under a judge's supervision. Meanwhile a state of emergency was declared in France as the suburbs of Paris burned, and in Germany the exhausted parties finally agreed a coalition two months after an inconclusive election.

Never mind the little green Martian who traditionally pays a visit to this planet for rhetorical purposes on these occasions, the average French or German visitor to the websites of British newspapers must be puzzled by such an extreme reaction to two votes in Parliament. In the size of type suitable for reporting a turning point in the Second World War the press declared that it was "the beginning of the end" - an observation that was either banal or wrong. Either it meant Tony Blair would be standing down as Prime Minister before the next election, which we know, or it meant he would be out in days or weeks as a consequence of the vote, which he won't be.

Historians may look back on the coverage of last week's parliamentary rebellion as viewing events from the wrong end of the telescope. Wednesday's votes were a significant stage not so much in the going of Tony Blair, but in the coming of Gordon Brown. That was a week in which the Chancellor tightened his grip further on the succession.

Many historical analogies were bandied about last week, from the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Gibbon's lesser-known works, the Last Days of Margaret Thatcher and The Dog Days of John Major. None was accurate, with the possible exception of Blair's decadent taste for orgies and peeled grapes that distracts him from inventing the stirrup. Thatcher's problem was her passionate conviction that she was right about a policy that the electorate hated, the poll tax. As one defiant Downing Street official put it to me, "we could afford to lose the 90 days because the general public is on our side." Nor is Blair's position comparable to that of Major, who had a smaller majority but who could use the threat of a general election (which, after the ERM debacle, the Tories knew they would lose) to keep his troops in line.

In that sense, Wednesday's votes illuminated rather than caused the precariousness of Blair's position; he is now a prime minister so constrained that he cannot ask his own MPs to express their confidence in him for fear of getting the wrong answer. Equally, the rebellion lit up Brown's strength - although not in the simplistic sense of popular caricature that has the Chancellor rubbing his hands with anticipation at the Prime Minister's discomfiture.

The Chancellor's real friends, as opposed to some of his more noisy supporters, insisted last week that he does not want to take over as a result of a Blair defeat. That would make the Government look divided and at war with itself. As we saw during the election, a Blair-Brown partnership plays well with the voters. If the "stable and orderly transition" of which Blair spoke after the election can be effected, it would reinforce Brown's greatest strength - his reputation for competence.

Brown knows, therefore, that he still has to wait. Waiting, of course, is something he knows a lot about. Now we understand even better the strength of the position from which he plays the waiting game.

The majority of 66 that Labour won in May was a trick of the light. Whether it is real or not depends on the angle from which it is viewed. It hardly exists for Blair, whereas it is solid for Brown. It is worth noting that last week's rebellion was worse than reported. As well as the 49 Labour MPs who voted against the Government on the first vote, on the 90-day limit, four others (including Geoffrey Robinson, a known but not necessarily authorised Brownite) voted against the Government on the second vote. for the 28-day limit. Another 13 Labour MPs did not vote at all.

That means that Blair cannot use the threat of a confidence vote to reverse or avoid defeats. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian who was David Cameron's tutor, tells me that the Queen would almost certainly summon Brown to the Palace rather than grant Blair a dissolution if he lost a vote on a motion of confidence. For many rebellious Labour MPs, that would be a straightforward inducement to vote Blair down.

The question, therefore, is how much of his programme Blair can push through without pushing his rebels to the brink. And there are two unexpected people who will come to his rescue and sustain him in office for some time yet. One is David Cameron, and the other is Gordon Brown.

The next big hurdle for Blair is the education legislation to allow the creation of "trust schools". But Cameron has adopted the opposite approach to the opportunism of John Smith, the supposedly pro-European Leader of the Opposition who brought Major to crisis over Maastricht. Cameron says in an interview recorded for the BBC's The Politics Show today: "I support the education White Paper." Asked whether he might be tempted to join Labour rebels to bring Blair down, he says: "We've got to resist that temptation because we've got to show that we are in this for the public good and in it for the long term."

Then there is Brown. As often with him, close textual analysis is required. "I think, if you read the manifesto carefully, we are implementing the manifesto," he said. This was misinterpreted in some quarters as a warning to Blair not to go beyond the manifesto. Its real significance is that the manifesto contains explicit New Labour reforms that some backbenchers do not like. The section on education says, for example: "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."

The Labour Party has come full circle on the doctrine of the manifesto. Where once the membership tried to use it to bind the leadership, now it is the other way round. And the planned Ruth Kelly Roadshow to sell the schools reforms will ensure that all the Cabinet dip their hands in the New Labour blood.

The momentum of the manifesto can carry Blair through the first half of the parliamentary term. After that, the limitations of his strength - revealed by last week's vote - will become steadily more apparent. In other words, nothing much has changed.