The Brownites may not like it, but Blair is still ambitious and eager to serve a full term

What if, instead of going to the sunset home for washed-up politicians, he has a renaissance?
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At Oxford University, they are using infra-red light to read previously unreadable papyrus writings by Sophocles and Euripides. The new finds could expand the body of classical literature by one fifth, and the more enthusiastic classicists are talking about a "second renaissance". Just the phrase that is required to analyse the political situation.

At Oxford University, they are using infra-red light to read previously unreadable papyrus writings by Sophocles and Euripides. The new finds could expand the body of classical literature by one fifth, and the more enthusiastic classicists are talking about a "second renaissance". Just the phrase that is required to analyse the political situation.

The ruling assumption of the past year or so is that Tony Blair is exhausted, if not mentally and physically, then at least politically and morally. He might just stagger across the tape in front of Michael Howard on 5 May, but only with Gordon Brown's help, and he will have to hand over to his Chancellor soon thereafter.

Maybe. But what if Blair isn't exhausted, and wins well, and stays on and on? What if, instead of going quietly to the sunset home for washed-up politicians, he enjoys a second renaissance? Now is not a convenient time to mention the possibility, I know. The anti-Blair Labourites will be infuriated, especially those who have only just come round to the idea of voting for the party despite him. For them, the prospect of a rapid handover to Brown after the election is the only thing that makes voting for someone they regard as a war criminal bearable (despite the fact that Brown supported the invasion of Iraq too).

Although it may not be not helpful to the cause of democracy, a higher turnout and getting out the core vote, I shall point out that the opinion polls have now moved into the zone where complacency is justified. Even if they are as far out as in the last three elections, in which the Labour vote was consistently overestimated, Blair will still be returned with a small majority. That was not true at the start of the campaign, but the Labour lead has widened markedly.

That in itself is unusual, because the pattern of the last three campaigns is that the opinion poll averages hardly moved at all once the campaign started. In each case there was a slight shift from Labour to the Liberal Democrats in the second half of the campaign. I think what has happened this time is that, at the start of the campaign, disaffected Labour voters told pollsters how disgusted they were. They wouldn't vote Labour while Blair was leader, they said. But once they saw Michael Howard on the news every night, they reluctantly came back.

So, barring accidents, Blair will be returned with a workable majority. As Steve Richards testifies in his important interview today, the Prime Minister is as energetic and ambitious as ever. Almost from the moment he became Labour leader I have heard the question, alternately solicitous and hopeful: Doesn't he look tired/old/depressed? Always, the answer is "no", as it is now. And the big road block to his serving out most of a third term is vanishing in another cloud of opinion polls on the other side of the Channel.

It looks as if the French may well vote "no" in their referendum on the European constitution at the end of next month. The spread betting markets predict the noes will have it by as much as 55 per cent. The paradox is that one of the reasons they will vote against the constitution is because they think it is a ghastly British plot to impose neo-Thatcherite Blairism on the entire continent, whereas the one person who will be dancing a little jig in his den if they vote "no" will be Blair.

Whatever he says about carrying on with the British referendum, which he is unlikely to win and which would force him to resign if he lost, there will be no point. And if the French don't save him, the Dutch or the Poles or the Czechs will.

What else could stop the second renaissance, the Indian summer of Blairism? The passions aroused by the Iraq war are not yet spent. Blair is sensible enough to concede in his Independent interview today that winning the election could not be claimed as an endorsement of his foreign policy. But an election does change things. It might at last allow some attention to be given to the inconvenient facts for the anti-war Blair-haters that the Iraqi people are pleased Saddam Hussein has gone, believe that the war and insurgency were prices worth paying, and are hopeful for their future.

The central question of a Blair renaissance, of course, is what its monuments would be. So the issue is not so much whether Blair could outlast Thatcher (November 2008 is the target date), but whether it would be worth it if he were a prisoner of Gordon Brown on policy. Whatever the rapprochement between Blair and Brown to get them through the election campaign, there remain issues of potential substance between them. When one of Blair's inner circle says there is "no other contender" to succeed the Prime Minister, that is a simple statement of fact.

But there has been no deal. There couldn't be. The Chancellor knows what it is like to be Charlie Brown, the character in Peanuts for whom Lucy holds the football, promising not to take it away at the last minute when he tries to kick it. Just like Blair, she always does.

The big unknown is how the argument will be resolved between Blair and Brown on the path of taxing and spending towards the end of the next parliament. Blair said that the current rate of public spending increases would ease off once health spending had reached the level of the EU average, about 2008. The Brownites avoid such talk, allowing people to think that the Chancellor wants the public sector to continue growing.

Hence the significance of Irwin Stelzer's appearance on the Today programme yesterday. Stelzer is a friend and adviser of Murdoch, who recently wrote an article for the Murdoch-owned Times headlined "Why Brown is wrong for No 10". Yesterday he expanded on why: "I worry about his willingness to raise taxes and impose regulations."

Stelzer is not Murdoch's spokesman, but their views are similar. And Murdoch is certainly taking an interest in the election. On Monday he attacked Michael Howard, saying it was "wrong" to put an absolute cap on immigration. "I am pro-immigrant," he said. Paradoxically, given its reporting ofimmigration, The Sun's endorsement of Blair cannot be far behind.

Stelzer yesterday held out the prospect that it may eventually be available to Brown, concluding: "I have always been encouraged by the fact that the Chancellor is probably the best listener of almost any politician I've met in any country."

The Labour manifesto may have been a messy compromise between Blair's ideas for "market-based" reforms of public services and Brown's statism. But the third term will not belong to Brown. The power of 10 Downing Street remains great and Blair's ambition undimmed. The twilight home for worn-out politicians need not prepare for a new resident quite yet.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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