Steve Richards: Suddenly, everything has changed for both Labour and the Conservatives

While they are performing well in the polls, the Tory party will allow its leader to do what he wants
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The Independent Online

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed. Darkness hovers. There are glimmers of light. A storm breaks. A storm subsides.

The latest almighty tempest passes. Still there is no date for a Prime Ministerial departure in public or in private. Some of the more evangelical Blairites insist that their man will lead the crusade until 2008. They were adamant about this before the most recent eruption. Conversely the more ardent Brownites say that Mr Blair will be lucky to last beyond the autumn. They have been making the same assertion since the last election.

Meanwhile Mr Blair and his close allies are as determined as ever to see through their agenda of policies. Vanity and personal ambition are peripheral factors. This is ideological. They are convinced that if his policies are not implemented Labour is doomed. From their perspective this is not about Mr Blair's legacy. It is about Mr Brown's inheritance. They want to lock him into a series of irreversible reforms. In this sense Mr Blair is convinced that only he can win a fourth election for Labour even if he is not physically at the helm. That is why he has instructed his new cabinet team to address long-term issues, including the future of the Labour Party, while he is leader.

That is why also yesterday's Sun newspaper was briefed by Downing Street that Mr Blair would co-operate with Mr Brown on a smooth transition, but only if he gets the full support of the Chancellor for his wide-ranging policy agenda. Nothing changes.

But in three key areas everything has changed since last week's local elections. Mainstream Labour MPs are restive. Last Monday's meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party was more significant than it seemed in the immediate aftermath. Normally these meetings are compared to a Nuremberg rally in their displays of disciplined loyalty. Yet the meeting turned out to be tense and awkward. Most speakers sought clarification about the time that would be given to Mr Blair' s successor. Suddenly the normally subservient parliamentarians became players in the so-called smooth transition. The date of Mr Blair's departure is no longer a matter for him alone.

The reason for the wider restiveness has little to do with Mr Brown's conspiratorial allies. Of course they have been scheming and had targeted this particular period from the weekend after the last general election. But the rebellious mood is to do with policy, and in particular the Education Bill, its origins and the way it was presented. The White Paper went beyond Labour's manifesto in its zeal for "choice" and its complacency over selection.

David Cameron's astute decision to support the Bill was another pivotal moment. It was partly a tactical decision by the Conservative leadership. But it was more than that. Most Conservatives supported the original White Paper with a genuine enthusiasm. There have been three Education Secretaries since the original proposals were unveiled. There could be another three. It does not matter. Education policy is driven from Downing Street. When the history of this period is written, the Brownite conspirators will have more than a walk-on role. The impact of the Education Bill will be more important still.

The second significant change is the opinion polls. Previous storms whipped up by the media or internal dissenters took place in the context of Labour's astonishing ascendancy in the polls. It was the reason why parallels with the fall of Thatcher or Major did not merit a moment's scrutiny. The two Conservative leaders were miles behind as they fell.

On one level the polls suggest a return to normal political patterns. Governing parties tend to be behind at this stage of a parliament. As Mr Blair pointed out earlier this week, Labour was ahead in the polls and won local elections during the 1980s. The party was still slaughtered at general elections. But this group of Labour MPs is not used to normal patterns. Some of them have concluded that recovery is possible only when the leadership issue is resolved. This does not mean necessarily that they are anti-Blair or pro-Brown. With good cause they worry more about paralysis in government. Mr Blair's departure would end this period of wild confusion. There would be no more speculation. There would be no more titanic battles between PM and Chancellor. Other problems might surface, but not these ones.

The other side of the political equation has almost been ignored in Labour circles, but is the third significant change of recent days. David Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party is secure. The pressures for him to move rightwards on to vote-losing terrain will subside. This is the easy bit for Mr Cameron. The Government turns in on itself. He has made no big policy decisions.

Perversely, the Labour leadership viewed previous doomed Tory leaders with a neurotic fearfulness: "Help! Hague's making a populist speech on crime - how do we respond?" But now that the Tories are led by a credible figure determined to fight the next election on the centre ground, they focus obsessively on internal battles. The Blairite strategy of adopting centrist or populist policies on the assumption that the Conservatives will oppose them by moving further to the right works no longer. While they are performing fairly well in the polls the Conservative party will allow its leader to do what he wants.

Already these three recent changes reverse the dynamics of the Blair/Brown relationship. Until now Mr Blair has possessed nearly all the theoretical power. He was the leader who could hire and fire. He had the authority of unprecedented electoral success. In their internal disputes, Mr Brown prevailed sometimes out of sheer dogged willpower. He could pull few strings. Now the opposite applies. The previously phlegmatic Mr Blair has discovered a wilful streak that exceeds Mr Brown's. But with mainstream MPs speaking out, and in no position to carry out another wide-ranging reshuffle, his authority and powers of patronage fade. As the Prime Minister in waiting, Mr Brown has more power than before, but faces the newly dogged determination of Mr Blair.

As things stand, it looks as if the drama will end in tears - and yet I have a hunch that somehow or other the dénouement will not be as bleak as that. Step back for a moment, and note that the economy performs well and was singled out for praise by the EU this week. In the end, the two architects of New Labour will not want to bring the edifice down. Still they are bound together. One will not wish to be remembered for leading Labour to destruction. The other will not want to inherit the wreckage.

Blair. Brown: a tragedy that could yet end with a less than tragic dénouement. Turn away for months and everything is the same. Blink and you miss something big.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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