A rough year in politics, but Mr Blair has never been more comfortably in charge

He sees his relationship with the uniquely excitable British media as similar to sharing a flat with a demented tenant
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is in greater command of his government and its future than at any time since the last election. The Cabinet met for the final session of the year yesterday to discuss tactics in the run-up to the election expected next May. Mr Blair and Alan Milburn held sway while their old friend, Philip Gould, briefed ministers on the broadly positive private polling. The single absentee was Gordon Brown, completing a trip to the United States.

Tony Blair is in greater command of his government and its future than at any time since the last election. The Cabinet met for the final session of the year yesterday to discuss tactics in the run-up to the election expected next May. Mr Blair and Alan Milburn held sway while their old friend, Philip Gould, briefed ministers on the broadly positive private polling. The single absentee was Gordon Brown, completing a trip to the United States.

His absence was unavoidable and coincidental, but the empty chair was symbolic. Before the 2001 election, such a cabinet meeting could not have been held without the Chancellor as he was in charge of the forthcoming campaign. Now Mr Blair has decided to do things his way, and Mr Brown has to put with it.

This takes some explaining, given the largely accurate reports of Mr Blair's political fragility over the spring and early summer. I suspect the local and European elections in June were the turning point in prime ministerial calculations on his future. Labour performed terribly, but not as badly as the Conservatives. The elections were further proof that the Conservatives could not win a general election and, therefore, Mr Blair could look forward to another decisive victory. The failure of the Conservatives to make headway gave Mr Blair political space to renew himself.

Another key moment in the extraordinary leap from prime ministerial precariousness to new assertions of strength came with the appointment of Alan Milburn as chair of Labour's election campaign. The significance of Mr Milburn's elevation was as much to do with the nature of the discussion between Mr Blair and his old ally in advance of the appointment. Mr Milburn was in Downing Street for a long time on the evening of his return. He was genuinely reluctant and only took up his post on the basis that he would have substantial powers with full prime ministerial backing. When Mr Milburn attempted to introduce foundation hospitals in his former brief as health secretary, he got caught in the Blair/Brown crossfire and retired wounded to spend more time with his family.

In his lengthy discussions with Mr Blair over his new role, Mr Milburn sought assurances that Mr Blair would be on his side in future internal battles. Mr Blair gave him those assurances and told him about his plans to stand for most of the third term. From that moment on, Mr Blair had no choice but to pursue his course and, in effect, take on his Chancellor.

During last week's reshuffle, Mr Milburn was consulted throughout. Mr Milburn was especially keen on the move of David Miliband from Education to join him at the Cabinet Office. It had crossed Mr Blair's mind to make Mr Miliband the Education Secretary, but he saw the attraction of bringing him back into what is, in effect, becoming a prime ministerial department, with Messrs Blair, Milburn and Miliband pulling the strings.

I sense also that Mr Blair has come through the storms of the last year with a greater sense of political proportion. In the media, we huff and puff, billing most weeks as the worst he has ever faced. At the end of each of them, he sails through. His close allies tell me he sees his relationship with the uniquely excitable British media as similar to that of sharing a flat with a demented tenant. He does not know whether the best option is to calm down the newspapers and some of the broadcasters by bashing them over the head or charming them into a less hysterical frame of mind. On the few occasions I bumped into Mr Blair during some of those "worst weeks", he always seemed calm and good-humoured. What is clear now is that the broader political context was always in his favour. He led a government with a landslide majority and, crucially, one that was normally ahead in the polls. When Mrs Thatcher was pushed aside by her cabinet and parliamentary party, the Conservatives were 20 points behind in the polls.

So what of the Blunkett affair that many have argued has undermined Mr Blair? The almost public anger of ministers, following Mr Blunkett's attack on them in his biography, has been described as a cabinet revolt against the Prime Minister. This is a misreading of what happened in the build-up to the resignation. Mr Blair's backing for Mr Blunkett came at his Downing Street press conference earlier this month when any other form of words would have seemed like a withdrawal of support for the Home Secretary.

At this point, other cabinet ministers were equally robust. After the publication of the biography, some ministers expressed their understandable fury, but none of them were briefing unequivocally that Mr Blunkett should go. It was only on the day of his resignation that senior cabinet ministers indicated that the Home Secretary was doomed. A cabinet revolt did not bring down Mr Blunkett. As we shall discover when the report is published, Sir Alan Budd's inquiry into the fast-tracking of a single visa ended Mr Blunkett's ministerial career. This is a cabinet that still goes out of its way to deliver what the leader wants.

Mr Brown is the obvious exception to this ministerial subservience. In the battles over next year's election manifesto, he will seek to prevail over the sections relating to economic policy and welfare. Even so, he will have significantly less influence over the proposals for public services, where Mr Blair has already set the path with his five-year plans, and over the broader electoral strategy. Mr Brown is in the highly unusual position of being the leader in waiting and yet less powerful than he has been since 1997. He responds to his semi-exile from the Blairite court by focusing on particular policies as outlined in his pre-budget report and seeking to convince himself that "what you do is more important than the position you hold". He will take some convincing on that one.

But while Mr Blair and his closest allies hold the cards, their opportunity is also a challenge. For years, they have sat around saying to each other: "We could be much more radical if it wasn't for Gordon". So how will they use their new political freedom? This is the most interesting question as the year comes to a close. In the end, they will be judged on policies and their implementation, most specifically about what they mean by being "more radical ... more New Labour".

At yesterday's cabinet meeting, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of hailing the economy and establishing dividing lines with the Conservatives. This would be the Chancellor's approach as well. In what ways are they distinctly new and radical?

There is also the broader uncertainty about the political mood after the election when Mr Blair's departure moves closer. It would not take much for ardent Blairite ministers to become devoted Brownites.

But between now and the election, Mr Blair dominates. It is a testament to his resilience, political energy and guile that, for the time being at least, he is in a position of supreme strength.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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