Mr Blair may intend to fight the election, but I bet he quits in the next few months

His own future is one of the few areas where he has complete control; on every other front, he is at the mercy of events
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Long ago, Tony Blair gave some thought to the circumstances in which he would resign. When Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, unexpectedly stood down, Mr Blair praised his old friend for bowing out gracefully when few had expected such a move. He joked that at some point he would do the same. Instead of being swept away by events, he would surprise us all by making a dramatic announcement in the style of Mr Ashdown.

Long ago, Tony Blair gave some thought to the circumstances in which he would resign. When Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, unexpectedly stood down, Mr Blair praised his old friend for bowing out gracefully when few had expected such a move. He joked that at some point he would do the same. Instead of being swept away by events, he would surprise us all by making a dramatic announcement in the style of Mr Ashdown.

Is it possible now that Mr Blair will surprise himself as well as the rest of us by resigning before the general election?

Before answering the question, we need to knock down the myths arising on an almost hourly basis. There has been speculation in recent days that a deal has already been done with a suspiciously cheerful Gordon Brown, in which Mr Blair hands over the reins fairly soon.

This is nonsense. On the contrary, there is solid evidence that Mr Blair plans to fight the next election. Not so long ago, he announced that he planned to chair Labour's election committee, hardly a move from someone intent on pulling out before the campaign got under way.

Mr Blair also seeks to formalise the roles of his old allies Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers in the run-up to the election. The intention is that they will surface from the shadows in some official capacity at Labour's rather rudderless headquarters. Similarly, his decision to call a referendum on the EU constitution was made on the assumption that he would be Prime Minister at the time of the plebiscite. At no point did he say to himself: "I will announce the bloody thing and leave Gordon Brown to fight it".

Nor is Mr Blair threatened by the prospect of a challenge from any figure, from his Chancellor downwards. Mr Brown realised long ago that his fingerprints must be nowhere near any attempts to remove Mr Blair. Other cabinet ministers would not even contemplate a mutiny. Beyond a handful of Labour MPs there will be no public call for the Prime Minister to resign. The only way Mr Blair would fall from power before the general election is if he decided to go of his own accord.

This is where matters become more complicated. His own future is one of the few areas where he does have complete control. On just about every other front he is at the mercy of appalling events that his own policies have helped to bring about.

For Mr Blair the next few months will be grim. Parts of Iraq are imploding and he faces nightmarish decisions about whether to send in more troops. The Butler inquiry into the intelligence will be published in July, highlighting again the contorted origins of the war. What were Mr Blair's calculations during that highly charged build up to war? Probably he assumed there would be a short war, the invaders would be regarded as liberators, Britain would be a bridgehead between the US and Europe bringing the two together in a mighty triumph. None of this happened. Indeed the notion of Britain being a bridgehead looks so misplaced that Gordon Brown publicly disowned the policy during his explosive speech to Labour's conference last year.

There was a bleak symmetry marking the two well-publicised letters published this week, the one penned by the 52 former diplomats on Britain's relations with the US and the other by the three former Blairite cabinet ministers on Europe. The letter from the former diplomats was the most serious political intervention since the end of the war. Criticism from some newspapers and a few Labour MPs is one matter. Mr Blair will have calculated from the beginning that there would be attacks from these quarters. But such an unequivocal blast from the diplomatic establishment is much harder to dismiss even if many of the signatories were opposed to the war from the beginning. As Robin Cook wrote in The Independent yesterday, these cautious figures, used to operating behind the scenes, would not have made such a move lightly. Their letter was a cry from specialists in despair at the sweeping and simplistic analyses favoured by some in Washington and Downing Street.

In contrast there was the downbeat letter on Europe from Messrs Mandelson, Byers and Milburn. Here was another reminder that the three most ardent Blairites are for different reasons outside the cabinet, trying to make the most of the decision to hold a referendum on the Constitution. They had hoped for a referendum on the Euro. Of course that was not possible because of the economic circumstances. Now we must rally around a new cause, and let us not make too much of all our red lines, implying that the Constitution is a terrifying document that needs to be tamed. On the one side we had a loud and unequivocal attack on Mr Blair's relationship with President Bush. On the other there was a rather desperate plea over Europe from once-mighty cabinet ministers.

Arguably none of this should be politically fatal for a Prime Minister of superhuman resilience who has a landslide majority in the Commons and a successful economy. But the problem is this: while the consequences of Iraq continue to erupt on a daily basis it is almost impossible for the government to highlight anything else.

Here is one emblematic example. I know of two cabinet ministers who have been planning to make major speeches on social policy for nearly 12 months, highlighting the significant successes of the government in tackling poverty and what still needs to be done. Last summer they separately concluded there would be no coverage of such issues because of the furore over the death of David Kelly. They decided to wait until everyone had calmed down after the summer break. There was no calm. In the autumn they concluded the focus was almost exclusively on the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the build up to the Hutton report. They still haven't made the speeches. There is no political space.

British politics tends to seem more volcanic than it really is. We have been here many times before. From the late 1960s Harold Wilson had ministerial colleagues breathing down his neck. He stayed until 1976. During the Westland crisis in 1986 Margaret Thatcher famously reflected that she might be forced out of office. She won a landslide victory 18 months later. John Major's grip on power was so precarious he stood down from the Conservative leadership. He stayed on to fight the 1997 election.

If Mr Blair chooses to stay on he could do so. But he cannot escape from Iraq. Since becoming leader he has been the great electoral asset for his party, and the agenda setter for much of the time as well. Now he cannot set the agenda and is proving to be the main source of his party's problems. The dynamics have changed dramatically. Mr Blair led a grateful party. Now he asserts his desire to lead and his party looks on uneasily.

I have no doubt that at the moment Mr Blair plans to fight on. I would also place a bet on him standing down of his own volition by the autumn.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Comments