Tony Blair heads for his holiday later this week in a distinctly odd position. There is mayhem everywhere, with a judge investigating the suspected suicide of Dr David Kelly, Alastair Campbell contemplating his departure, and no weapons turning up in Iraq. Yet his government is still ahead in most polls. This is astonishing. If previous political laws of mid-term mayhem had applied, Blair and his wounded team would be 20 points behind. Instead, he is a precarious prime minister who could win another landslide election.
Which means that in the short term he has the luxury of political breathing space. Parties ditch leaders when polls suggest they are heading for electoral catastrophe and equally important, when the same polls find they would be incomparably more popular under an alternative leader. This is what finished Margaret Thatcher off in 1990. The polls put the Conservatives miles behind. Would you vote Conservative under either Michael Heseltine or John Major? "Yes," the disaffected voters cried. Sure enough, Tory MPs switched leaders and they won another election. In the 1990s, Major survived because polls suggested that the Conservatives were equally doomed under any other leader.
None of this applies at the moment. There may be an inquiry into a possible suicide, two separate parliamentary inquiries into the war, and no weapons in the desert, but Labour is still performing credibly in the polls. And there is little evidence at this stage that it would be more popular under a different leader.
The case being made for Gordon Brown is close to meaningless in the short term. Blair shows no signs of taking a bow and has just appointed himself to chair the committee planning the next general election, hardly the action of a leader considering imminent retirement. Brown would not mount a challenge against him in any circumstances, least of all those in which the Government's electoral prospects were still reasonable. He has always known that his chances of being leader are best if Blair departs voluntarily, rather than by being compelled to commit a Heseltine-style act of regicide.
Before the death of David Kelly we were on the verge of the latest media frenzy about Blair and Brown. You could sense it in the air, that another tornado was on its way. It does not take very much. The week before last the New Statesman published an eight-page onslaught against Blair, peppered with praise for Brown. The magazine is owned by Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Brown and is therefore widely perceived as being part of the Chancellor's political weaponry.
On the day of its publication I bumped into a distinguished columnist who suggested that "Blair is in trouble and therefore Brown just could not resist this attack". That is when I sensed the tornado. As that magazine's political editor for three years, I can confirm that neither Brown nor Robinson interfere with its editorial content, and those eight pages would have been commissioned by the editor alone. We once published an interview that was so damaging for New Labour that the then editor, Ian Hargreaves, felt obliged to alert Robinson. Hargreaves managed to track him down on an elephant in the jungle. Robinson thanked his editor for the call and returned to his elephant. He is an owner who does not interfere. Still, last week's New Statesman would have been enough to spark weeks of speculation about Brown's determination to overthrow the Prime Minister.
What has changed in recent months is a growing recognition among Cabinet ministers that Brown will be the successor at some point. This is quite a significant development. Until recently ministers who were wary of Brown placed their hopes in other candidates, but not any more. Some of them even speculate that Brown is in such a commanding position there will be no contest when the time comes. I would be surprised if the succession is as smooth as that, but it shows how in these wildly oscillating times Brown is on a high. He is still standing while other potential candidates in a leadership contest lie wounded inside, or in some cases outside, the Cabinet.
While the Chancellor bides his time how will Blair make use of the political breathing space? In the end it is in his hands as to whether he uses the space productively. This might seem obvious, but the focus on Campbell has created a false impression that his likely departure in the autumn will in itself magically renew the Prime Minister and his government. Once the frenzy has passed Campbell will be seen as someone who managed for a time to get the Labour Party and its leader a decent press and, in spite of the mythology, tried to open up the lobby system. I recall attending a dinner at Michael Foot's house in Hampstead shortly before his wife, Jill Craigie, died. The leftie guests were mouthing the familiar clichés about "spin", expecting the Foots' enthusiastic endorsement. Craigie turned on them: "If Michael had employed Alastair when he was leader he might not have been slaughtered by the newspapers." Foot added: "You tell them Jill!" The guests could not quite come to terms with this, their clichés being challenged by a Labour hero. But Foot knew what it was like dealing with the newspapers without much support. They slaughtered him.
In government the activities of spin-doctors should always be a sideshow. The policies are what matter. The entire basis for the feverish atmosphere can be traced back to the war and the overblown claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This issue can only be resolved in one of two ways. If the weapons turn up, Blair is vindicated. It would not end the debate about the war, but the questions about trust would no longer whirl around at such a high volume. More likely, he will have to explain much more fully than in his speech in Washington 10 days ago what went wrong. Given the media's obsession with spin there is more appetite for candour than linguistic evasiveness. It might even do him some good. In the current climate if a political leader declared: "I am sorry, I have got everything wrong in the past 25 years," he would probably win a standing ovation and an election landslide.
Political leaders tend to plod on. When Harold Wilson's reputation plummeted in 1967 after the devaluation of sterling there was constant speculation about a successor. He lasted another seven years, fighting three more elections. Thatcher feared the Westland crisis might finish her off. She was around for many more years. There is one difference this time. Wilson had so many rivals they cancelled each other out. Thatcher had no obvious successor. Blair has one credible successor who seeks the crown. How the Prime Minister must hope those weapons turn up and the polls remain fair over the next few traumatic months.Reuse content