Did Blair prove his indispensability for another three years? In many ways it was a meatier speech than normal with a dogged emphasis on the challenges and the policy agenda for the coming years.
As I wrote in yesterday's Independent, Blair and his closest allies have decided that another few years of his leadership are essential to entrench new Labour as an enduring force. They seek to press on with reforms of the public services in a way that would prevent a Brown leadership from dismantling them. In a discreet dig at the Chancellor, Blair said that in relation to each reform of the public services already implemented he wished he had been more radical. In most cases it was Brown who had stood in the way. Now Blair is determined to press on. The introduction of choice and diversity in public services is his overwhelming reason for staying put. Blair and his allies have a new crusade.
On other issues he was equally forthright. He had "battered" the criminal justice system without much success. Now he had plans for transforming laws framed for the 19th century rather than the challenges of the 21st. There were new challenges arising from the terrorist attacks in London in July and he was ready to meet them.
He was at his most forceful in putting the case for new Labour as a formidable political force, linking his passion for reform with his commitment to social justice. In doing so he exposed the shallow arguments that this was a project based on "spin" and lacking in firmly held values. From 18 years in opposition Labour is now in its third term of government and still hungry for more power. The serious and mature debates are the product of a party at ease with power, but not yet complacent about it. This is a powerful tribute to Blair's leader- ship. Labour remains formidably focused and disciplined.
But the prime ministerial agenda will not end the speculation about his leadership and nor should it. The mission outlined in the speech is not big enough for him to plead indispensability. Public services are always being reformed. Governments are always seeking new ways to fight crime. He would be helped in his determination to remain in power if there was a single big and tangible cause.
But his old crusading causes are nowhere to be seen. Once he sought to end Britain's ambiguous relation with Europe. Now Europe gets a couple of lines in his speech. At the start of his leadership he sought a relationship with the Liberal Democrats. Now they are dismissed with contempt. They deserve to be so in their current state, but what a contrast from his early years. Only Iraq remains as a bleak challenge and the misguided decisions made in relation to the war are hardly the best case for his remaining in power.
Probably there was nothing Blair could say to unequivocally secure his position for the next three years. The story is the same as it has been for years. He wants to stay put. Brown wants him out fairly soon. This story has run and run for years. It can do so for much longer.
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