The decline, not the fall

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The Independent Online

Froth? On Friday the Prime Minister dismissed speculation about his future as froth. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister speculated at length and on the record about Tony Blair's future.

Froth? On Friday the Prime Minister dismissed speculation about his future as froth. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister speculated at length and on the record about Tony Blair's future.

There are only two plausible explanations for John Prescott's conduct. One is that, as a contribution to the grown-up, open political culture that exists in this country, he offered his honest opinion of the state of play. A likely story. For all his reputation as a loose verbal cannon, it is only his syntax that runs out of control. He is careful about his subject matter.

The other explanation is incendiary. It is that he is so worried that Blair will contaminate the inheritance of his successor that he is putting pressure on the Prime Minister to resign this summer. Most of what Prescott said in his interview might have been unexceptional if it had been written by a journalist observing the fevered plotting and calculating in Westminster last week. When the tectonic plates of politics "appear to be moving, everyone positions themselves for it".

This activity is not primarily occurring on the continental mass inhabited by Gordon Brown. The Chancellor has finally got it into the heads of his supporters that any clever business on their part is unhelpful to his ambitions. But there is much talk of who could stand against Brown in a leadership contest, with the names of John Reid and Charles Clarke currently out in front.

So much we can work out for ourselves. What is unusual is for the Deputy Prime Minister - and deputy leader of the Labour Party - to explain it all for us. So far, so merely unusual. But then he pointed out that he had had "privileged" discussions "about all these things" with Blair. That was instead of repeating the standard formula used by Blair himself, and his personal friend Charles Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, that he would stand for election on the basis of serving a full third term.

Then Prescott addressed the central question that lies behind last week's "froth" - that of whether Blair has become an electoral liability to his party. "We are not so far down in the polls that he cannot win the next election - I think he can." That was a stunningly lukewarm endorsement of the man whose strongest claim to the Labour leadership, from the moment 10 years ago last Wednesday when John Smith died, has been that he is a vote-winner.

This was followed by the menacingly cryptic: "Those decisions will look after themselves." In other words, Blair's decision - as he conceded it was "entirely" - should be made according to the terms of the deal with Gordon Brown. This is not a one-off pact sealed at the Granita restaurant on 31 May 1994 and affirmed over dinner at Prescott's Admiralty Arch apartment on 6 November 2003. It is a central understanding of the Blair-Brown relationship: that whichever of them is best placed to win votes in the country will be deferred to by the other.

The problem with this has always been how the shifting balance is to be judged, and by whom. That is why last weekend's YouGov opinion poll caused such a reaction. It put Labour four percentage points behind the Conservatives, which is not at all bad for a governing party at this stage of a parliament. But the headline in the Mail on Sunday was "Dump Blair ... Or Lose", because it suggested that Labour could pull level with the Tories if they switched to Brown as leader.

This is far from conclusive. One poll last September showed a five-point "Brown premium", but others found Brown made no difference. Hence the significance of Labour's disastrous canvass returns from the start of the campaign for the European and local elections on 10 June, which this newspaper reports today on page one.

They will frighten Labour MPs, just as Conservative MPs were spooked by the local elections in May 1990 - despite a valiant attempt by Kenneth Baker, the Tory chairman, to spin gains in Westminster and Wandsworth as a victory.

Margaret Thatcher dismissed talk of plots against her as froth, too, and for a long time it was. But there were real political forces in play, and a simple calculation for Conservative MPs to make. Once the opinion polls established incontrovertibly that she was an electoral liability, and once she made clear that she would not retreat from the poll tax, her fate was sealed.

Prescott seems to be preparing for the sequel, with Blair cast as Thatcher and Iraq as his poll tax. He was not suggesting that the party is heading for defeat under Blair, as the Tories surely were under Thatcher. But, for him, the option of switching to a leader able to step away from the quagmire of Iraq is attractive. He has added his name to the growing list of commentators urging Blair to go this year "in his own interest". More to the point, he would believe it to be in Labour's long-term interest. In the twilight of his own career - he is 66 this month - his only motivation is loyalty to the party.

Hence the most resonant passage of his interview: "If you are Prime Minister you are concerned about your legacy. If you are coming in you are concerned about your inheritance. As a party, we are concerned to get continuity between these stages and keep Labour in office."

Prescott, who was uncomfortable enough about Labour's support for the first Gulf War in 1991, can have little attachment to Blair's foreign policy. It would be consistent for him to believe that the damage inflicted by Iraq on the party is not worth it. He seems to believe that, if the Blair handover to Brown roughly coincided with the coalition handover to an interim Iraqi government, then Labour could fight the next election on its domestic record.

This is, then, not froth. Blair's deputy appears to want him to step down in July so that Labour can finally escape the consequences of a disastrous war. That is a huge story.

But it is not the end of the story. I do not believe Blair should or will resign this year. If Prescott has turned, that is yet another heavy blow to a seriously weakened Prime Minister. But we are still charting the Decline, not the Fall. It is not yet undisputed that Blair is an electoral liability to his party. He has not yet entered the Thatcher Twilight Home. The YouGov poll suggests that a mere two per cent of voters might return to Labour from the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps another two per cent might turn out to vote Labour rather than stay at home. The anti-war Labour vote is a passionate but small subsection of the electorate. It could easily be outweighed by a larger, quieter group of swing voters who would be alarmed by a return to "Old Labour". And the polls generally suggest - as Prescott conceded - that Blair is still heading for a comfortable victory.

Blair's survival depends, therefore, on the stabilisation of Iraq, defined as the abating of the constant stream of bad news. For the past 14 months, every triumph for Blair has been trumped by a disaster. If that stops, he has, as the Prescott critique implies, a good story to tell on the issues that concern most voters.

He has control of the Labour manifesto, having wrested Gordon Brown's spending plans from the Treasury and turned them into "reform plans" for the public services that will be announced in July. No 10 is full of ideas for dramatising the improvements that have been made in health and education, and projecting them into the third term.

This means Brown still "owns" the tremendous success of the British economy over the past seven years, but Blair "owns" the improvements in the public services. So far, perceptions have lagged behind such improvements, but over the next year that could start to change. If they are not overwhelmed by more bad news from Iraq. Until that becomes clearer, John Prescott will only be right about one thing: "Every British Prime Minister goes eventually."