Those newspapers which rather hope that Mr Blair will not survive have invested next week with high drama. They have cast the beleaguered Labour government as facing, by Thursday, the political parallel of the square being broken, the Gatling jammed and the colonel dead.
Personally, I expect Mr Blair to be still Prime Minister when the dust parts at the end of next week, and I am confident he intends to lead the Labour Party into the next general election. Short of Lord Hutton announcing that it was the Prime Minister who done it, with a bluntness that would be out of character with all we know about his judiciousness, I suspect Tony Blair has every prospect of surviving until his 10th anniversary of entering Downing Street. The biggest threat that could stop him completing that timetable would be loss of his own appetite for the job, but he emanates every sign of a deepening missionary zeal the longer he holds the post.
Survival, though, will not prove that next week's challenges are not serious. For Tony Blair, they are serious in a very direct way, because both moments of truth arise from decisions on top-up fees and Iraq which were very much his own and not the product of collective government.
The disaffection over top-up fees is in part about the issue, but in part also about the style of government which it symbolises. It is fashionable among those who support the switch in policy to lament that its presentation has been badly handled. But the handling of the new policy is indistinguishable from the manner in which the new policy was thought up. It was the product of a closed meeting between the Russell Group of top universities and the Prime Minister himself. Neither Cabinet nor parliamentary party was given any ownership of the project before Downing Street unilaterally adopted it as government policy, and then expected everyone else to fall into line.
Whether enough MPs have now fallen into line to get the policy through Parliament on Tuesday, I do not know. Nor, though, does the Government. Their confident boasts last week that therehad been a change in the chemistry now appear to have underestimated the depths of concern.
The reason why it has proved so difficult to throw enough concessions into the melting pot to find a point of consensus is that an ideological fault line divides the two sides. Those opposed to variable fees support public services available equally to all and funded primarily not by individual consumers but by the community as a whole. They believe that social cohesion is promoted by preserving a public realm in which people are treated equally as citizens with the same rights, not as consumers with different purchasing powers.
Top-up fees have acquired such an emblematic quality because of the suspicion that New Labour is losing the will to defend public services funded out of public taxation. If we are told now that general taxpayers should not be "penalised" by meeting the costs of students, how much longer before the same argument reaches schools on the parallel argument that those with A-levels have a higher income potential than early school-leavers? It is one thing to be told, correctly, that public services must respond flexibly to the needs of the individual, but quite another to confuse this with individuals paying for variable levels of access.
Conspiracy theorists are prone to spot a cunning plan in the proximity of the vote on top-up fees to the publication of the Hutton report. Personally, I suspect half of Number 10 had to lie down and sip water for an hour until they recovered from discovering Lord Hutton had pulled his release date a whole week earlier. Politicians are resilient in the face of one difficult challenge. What they fear is a story line of everything going wrong at the same time.
As it is, the morning after the vote on top-up fees we will hear the report of Lord Hutton. It is hard to see how he can acquit the Government of failing in its duty of care towards Dr Kelly. His own counsel, Mr Dingemans, in his closing submission, laid bare how three successive drafts of the guidance to the press officers moved from refusing to release Dr Kelly's name to confirming it if asked. The majority of those who took part in the drafting and redrafting exercise were on the staff of Downing Street.
Over the past couple of days, Geoff Hoon and scapegoat have been used virtually as synonyms. I would regard it as grossly unjust if he was left to carry the can. If he is guilty of any error, it can only be an enthusiasm to anticipate the perceived wishes of Downing Street and possibly a reluctance to refuse to carry them out. One effect of Downing Street constantly second-guessing the judgements of departmental ministers is that it is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to walk away unscathed when that judgement goes wrong. I suspect Number 10 understands very well that they cannot drop Geoff Hoon in the wake of Hutton without sharpening awkward questions over their own complicity.
But in one sense the Hutton report threatens bathos. The death of David Kelly was a personal tragedy for him and his family, but the even larger political scandal was how Britain was manoeuvred into taking part in Bush's war on Iraq on warnings of an imminent threat which have turned out to be bogus. Lord Hutton's admirable commitment to transparency made public a succession of damning emails that confirmed not even Tony Blair's own chief of staff was convinced Saddam was an urgent threat, and uncovered that nobody even in the Government machine believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, rather than artillery shells, ready for use in 45 minutes.
These matters, though, lie outside Lord Hutton's narrow remit and his counsel hinted that it is for others to pursue them. The last outcome Tony Blair wants from the Hutton report is a commitment to any more inquests into Iraq. Any parliamentary select committee which has the impertinence to suggest they will conduct a further inquiry may find that the Victorian cells in the tower of Big Ben are being refurbished to accommodate them. Nor could another inquiry better the evidence already unearthed by Hutton, which has exposed the hollowness of the case for war.
If Tony Blair wants not only to survive next week but to restore his authority he desperately needs to reach closure on the controversy over the war. But the row will not go away so long as he insists he was right and that he would do the same again if asked by Bush. At some point, he must acknowledge that mistakes were made and guarantee that lessons have been learnt.
He will never get a better opportunity than in his response to the Hutton report. If he responds in contrite mood, it could provide the catharsis he needs before he can move on from Iraq.
If he defiantly defends every sorry detail, from the concoction of the September dossier to the outing of Kelly, then next week will only be another round in the controversy over a war that has become the defining issue of this Parliament.Reuse content