Steve Richards: The chaotic conclusion of a political era

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The Independent Online

The Blair era is almost over. It is ending in a way that echoes the fall of Margaret Thatcher. She was forced out as a result of a rebellion by the cabinet and Conservative MPs. Mr Blair is losing control over the manner and timing of his pre-announced departure for similar reasons. Mrs Thatcher was in Paris when her power started to drain away. Mr Blair was making a speech in York when the rebels stirred.

Already events are moving fast. Forget about the vaguely conflicting letters being circulated by feverish Labour MPs. A bigger story broke yesterday. The cabinet minister David Miliband, who has worked closely for Tony Blair for many years, told the BBC that the Prime Minister would be gone by this time next year. Mr Blair's allies pointed restive Labour MPs in the direction of Mr Miliband's interview. That is the line, they insisted desperately. He is going.

Imagine if Mr Miliband had gone on the Today programme a year ago and stated that Mr Blair would be gone by the conference of 2007. All hell would have broken loose, not least in Downing Street which would have proclaimed that Mr Blair was full of ideas and planned to serve a full term. A year ago it seemed that Mr Blair planned to continue until 2008 at the earliest. Now he fights to stay on for another few months.

Scattered around the constituencies, speaking to each other on mobile phones and trying to track down colleagues still on beaches around the world, some Labour MPs refuse to hear the loud political explosion. Unused to being behind in the polls, despairing of Mr Blair's position on Lebanon, exasperated by some of his domestic reforms, they seek a bigger bang. They want to hear Blair utter the words: "This will be my last conference."

The MPs should note the tremors of recent days that already dramatically alter the political landscape. Whether Mr Blair utters the words or not he is going within the next 12 months and nobody, not even the besieged members of the Downing Street bunker, are briefing any other possible option. A public statement from the Prime Minister will not change very much. It will only confirm what we already know for certain.

Why are Labour MPs in such a state? Some do not believe that Mr Blair will go unless he makes a public commitment. Senior Brownites, in particular, are bruised by previous private commitments from Mr Blair that he would stand down. But this is different. Even if Mr Blair decided to stay on beyond next summer he would not be able to do so. Ministers would not let him.

Other Labour MPs despair of what they regard as the self-indulgent bunker mentality as Labour faces electoral meltdown and they all become infected with the troubles whirling around Mr Blair.

The most potent question now is not whether Mr Blair feeds the rebellious Labour MPs a few more dregs and announces publicly he will be gone by the conference of next year. It is whether Mr Blair decides that enough is enough and goes much earlier than that.