Gordon Brown has played the nightmarish role of heir apparent for more than a decade. When Brown is silent, there is often suspicion. When he speaks out, there is suspicion too.
In the past, there was often an angry cry from within parts of the Government: "Where is Gordon? Why isn't he doing his bit in defending Tony?" Now that he is doing more than his bit an equally loud cry is heard: "What's he doing talking about national security? He should get on with being Chancellor." As he ranges more widely, there are also hyperbolic proclamations about an astonishing new phase in British politics in which there is a formally agreed joint premiership between Blair and Brown. According to this view, the heir apparent has acquired half a crown.
Last week I argued that the unreported story since the new year had been the awesome outbreak of discipline in a governing party that was still hungry for power. Even so, there are extreme limits to the discipline being exercised. When Blair and Brown get together for their intensively mediated sessions, the main item of discussion is how to deal with David Cameron. Like divorced parents still capable of talking about the children and not much else, they do not get far beyond the relatively safe topic of the Conservative Party. There has been no new deal and little coming together over an agreed policy agenda. At the moment, Brown ranges more widely with Blair's compliance - but not his enthusiastic approval.
In private, Blair's allies continue recklessly to voice their fears that Brown would take Labour to the left and away from their extremely narrow view of what constitutes the centre ground. In doing so, they play into the hands of the Conservatives who make the same case.
Indeed it is one of the great ironies of the current febrile situation that some of Blair's closest disciples are convinced that only they have a formula for winning elections. In suggesting that Brown has not understood their winning ways, they clear a path for Cameron. I am told that at Labour's spring conference at the weekend, some Blairites could not disguise their delight over Labour's defeat at the Dunfermline by-election in which Brown had played a major role. Such public displays of glee in their party's humiliation confirm that talk of a formally agreed joint premiership is a wild fantasy.
Evidently it is Brown himself who felt the need to address the joint assault from the Conservatives and some Blairites. In recent weeks, he has given a series of interviews declaring his support for Blair's education reforms and now speaks out in favour of sweeping measures aimed at protecting national security. In doing so he seeks partly to escape the trap set by Cameron and his internal opponents. The recent messages could not be clearer. He is in favour of "reform". National security can be trusted to him. But as he escapes one trap, he risks falling into another - of being an echo to a discredited political approach.
As a former adviser to Blair, Peter Hyman, wrote in an article last week, there is more than one way of interpreting the centre ground of British politics. Currently, Blair's close allies define the political centre as policies that annoy the Labour Party while promoting markets, choice and tough anti-crime measures. Of course, Brown is constrained by the familiar rules of collective responsibility, the desire to keep some newspapers on board or neutered and the related need to show he can make a positive impact on "middle England".
But for a single reason he is freer to develop a more distinctive voice than at any time in the past 10 years. Until recently, any stirrings from Brown were regarded, often unfairly, as solely an attempt to stake out his claim for the leadership. They were seen, in parts of the media in particular, as acts of disloyalty or a bid for the top job. Quite often they were viewed as both. Now there has been a subtle and important change. The absence of an alternative contender and Blair's pre-announced departure means that Brown's statements are regarded differently as those of the prime minister-in-waiting. How can it be disloyal to move beyond the Government's current narrow agenda when Blair is leaving and no one else appears to be fully qualified to take over?
So far, only the closest watchers will note the subtle differences in his approach, the limited use of the new freedom. In his speeches and interviews Brown points to a longer-term agenda, the need for further reforms in education and speaks of a balance between robust parliamentary accountability while meeting the needs of national security. But most voters will hear only an echo at a moment when some of the electorate turn away from the familiar noises.
Far too much has been read into last week's by-election defeat for the Government. In reality, the outcome illustrates the continuing multi-layered confusions arising from devolution. Voters punished the national Government, partly in anger at local issues instigated by Liberal Democrats that share power in the Scottish Parliament. Blair does not make an obvious point that the controversies relating to his reforms do not apply to Scotland and could not therefore have contributed to the defeat. He is too dependent on Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster to get his reforms through to make such a distinction. The Conservatives and some Blairites choose to blame Brown when the campaign was never a referendum on his performance as Chancellor.
All that can be said of the result is that Labour supporters are not enthused and found it easy yet again to switch to the Liberal Democrats. Evidently, they want to hear more than an echo from the centre ground of British politics.
Blair and Brown are busking unpredictably. Their behaviour is not rooted in any detailed plan for a smooth transition. Brown tests out his tentative prime ministerial voice. Blair is determined that a successor will be committed or trapped into remaining on his narrowly defined part of the centre ground of British politics. The confusing choreography obscures the messages and many of the good policies the government is implementing more quietly.
Such a highly charged situation should not go on for much longer. Yesterday, I heard a series of interviews with Labour MPs defending the Government forcefully on a range of issues. Within a minute or two they were debating the leadership question. Fairly or not, it is the question that will not go away. In order to address it, Blair must agree to what many have assumed, wrongly, he has done already - which is to make arrangements for a formal and timetabled transition.
Alternatively, Brown must take some risks in developing a more authentic voice. There will come a point soon when it does him and the future prospects of the Government more harm in keeping his seething frustration hidden from public view.Reuse content