Steve Richards: Labour should be getting out champagne to celebrate. Instead, the party is going mad

There are no big splits over policy, and plenty of big names agree on what the future agenda should be
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The Independent Online

Every now and again a political party goes mad, stark raving bonkers. In the 1990s, the Conservatives lapsed into insanity over arcane details of the Maastricht Treaty. At least they were deranged over something. Labour is becoming demented over nothing, absolutely nothing at all.

Step back for a moment and consider what new Labour used to call the bigger picture. Blair is going soon. Labour is lucky. There is no need for a bloody coup. He is off. He will be gone before Labour's conference next year.

What is more, momentum is moving fast in the direction of those that seek a change of leader soon. Here is the one significant change from this time a year ago. Last September, the extreme Blairites, and most of the cabinet, were adamant that Blair would serve a full term. A fringe meeting of ultra Blairites at Labour's conference was close to an evangelical rally. This was John Reid at the rally a year ago: "Be in no doubt, Tony, God bless him, will serve a full term." This was Peter Mandelson at the same rally: "Tony will be Prime Minister for years to come, and I mean years to come." Probably this was Blair's calculation then too, that there was little to stop him breaking all prime ministerial records in terms of longevity.

Such delusional passion is spent. They know the game is almost up. There will be no talk on the fringe, in the conference hall or in private briefings about the need and desirability of a full prime ministerial term. The opposite is the case. Blair is losing the support of the cabinet. A year ago, ministers queued up with the ultra Blairites to insist the Prime Minister must stay until 2008 at the earliest. The cabinet was Blair's great stronghold. Now I speak to cabinet ministers who wonder whether it would be best for Labour if he goes in the autumn or waits until the spring.

This has been the most noticeable change since the summer. Some are planning to tell Blair that he must go soon and get used to the prospect of life away from Downing Street. Cabinet ministers are stirring.

Indeed, one way or another virtually everyone associated with the Government stirs, giving the impression of extreme division. Yet away from the madness most of the key players show signs of leading a constructive debate about Labour's future.

The former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, wrote an important article in the New Statesman last week in which he identified five areas in need of reform: local government, Labour's relations with business, the environment, the constitution and foreign policy.

An anthology of Gordon Brown's speeches to be published shortly highlights the need for stronger local government, a renewed emphasis on the environment and constitutional reform. It is a myth that Brown has not talked publicly about the direction he would take the Government. Clarke is not a Brownite and Brown is not close to Clarke, yet they agree on most matters.

Elsewhere, the Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, writes a pamphlet about the need to revive the Labour Party, to make it more connected with local communities. There will be few that will argue about the urgency of such a move and plenty with the energy to bring it about. More widely, another rising star, David Miliband, continues to show interest in the themes highlighted separately by Brown and Clarke.

So here is the bigger picture. In a demanding, unprecedented third term, Labour has a leader that is not planing to go on and on. The next leader will be a successful Chancellor who has a currently underestimated capacity to range widely and turn vague ideas into concrete policies that command wide support. There are no fundamental splits over policy, and plenty of big names agree more or less on what the future agenda should be. The economy is strong and will be robust at the time of the next election.

In contrast, the Conservative Party is at only the early stages of recovery and has fewer seats than Labour after its catastrophic 1983 election. The Liberal Democrats attract publicity over the drinking problems of their former leader and for little else. Labour should be getting out the champagne and toasting a capacity to renew itself in power. Instead it is going mad.

There are some understandable reasons for the current frenzy. In the view of one cabinet minister, Blair's original stance over Lebanon in the summer has done him more harm with Labour MPs than the war against Iraq. As the May elections in Scotland, Wales and parts of England move into view, senior figures, well beyond the usual suspects, fear meltdown unless Blair has gone by then. The calls for a timetable also reflect a lack of trust in Blair. Still some Brownites fear - with no cause, in my view - Blair will contrive to stay beyond next summer.

Then there are the two irrational factors. Blair fuels the madness by seeking to shape the future of the Labour Party once he has left. No leader can do so. Margaret Thatcher tried and failed, even though she was dealing with John Major, a weaker leader than Brown will prove to be. Blair has been fortunate. He has been the main agenda setter for a long time. From the start of the second term, much of what has happened has been down to him. He has presided over more than his fair share of five-year and 10- year plans in his time, eagerly implemented by a previously supine cabinet. He has been more dominant in foreign policy than any recent Prime Minister.

Now he must leave it to others. One cabinet minister tells me that Blair's desire to shape the future is a final indication that he has not quite come to terms with the idea of departure. Even so, any attempt to bind future administrations will not work and will provoke a furious reaction.

Labour MPs add to the madness by calling for a public timetable in relation to Blair's departure. Such a timetable would not calm matters for a minute, but only add to the turbulence. Blair would be asked a single question from the moment of such an announcement: why are you saying this when you will be gone in May? In the meantime, voters turn away in bewildered indifference. There are no mass protests with placards screaming: "We must have a timetable!." What is more, a call for a timetable is really a call for Blair to go ... and he is going.

The key question is not the one posed by Blair in his interview last week: New Labour or bust? No serious figure is going for bust, or putting the case for bust. The more the internal debate is framed in such a way, the more it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, part of the deranged atmosphere in which a more or less united party is portrayed as split. The pivotal question is different: Madness or a substantial fourth election win? Madness is winning.