The true story of what Tony Blair told Gordon Brown about his succession

In the months that followed the dinner, they had several conversations about a smooth hand-over
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How do we make sense of it all? During the summer there was seething speculation that Tony Blair would resign by the autumn. Now the autumn is nearly upon us and the Prime Minister is striding on, looking forward to the next election and a third term with his old friend, Alan Milburn, by his side.

How do we make sense of it all? During the summer there was seething speculation that Tony Blair would resign by the autumn. Now the autumn is nearly upon us and the Prime Minister is striding on, looking forward to the next election and a third term with his old friend, Alan Milburn, by his side.

One possible answer for the new political mood is that the speculation was always wrong. There is some evidence to support such a claim. In public, Mr Blair always appeared robust and upbeat. When the BBC ran a story that he was in deep gloom and persuaded out of resignation by visits from several Cabinet members, there were immediate ministerial denials.

I know also of two Cabinet ministers who went to see Mr Blair after his announcement that there would be a referendum on the European Constitution. The two ministers sought assurances that he would lead the referendum as Prime Minister. He told them that he would do so.

But in my view the reports from the BBC and elsewhere were accurate and quite probably underplayed what really went on. It seems that Mr Blair made some very precise comments at the famous peacemaking dinner with Gordon Brown hosted by John Prescott at the end of last year. In an earlier column I reported some of the awkwardly humorous social exchanges that took place in the early stages of that dinner. Now I can reveal some of the dramatic substance.

Mr Blair acknowledged that he was in deep political trouble. In particular his ratings over trust were terrible and threatened to damage his party at a point when it appeared that the Conservatives were reviving. I am told that Mr Blair proceeded to tell Mr Brown that he wanted his full support to help him get through the next year, at which point he would step down. In the months that followed, Mr Blair and Mr Brown had several conversations about a smooth hand-over.

I am also told that when matters got worse earlier in the summer, Mr Blair did indeed contemplate an early announcement of his planned departure. As some reports have already suggested Gordon Brown persuaded him against such a move in order to avoid a power vacuum, filled partly by a never-ending battle over the leadership. In other words, Mr Blair did not have a wobble in the early summer. He contemplated announcing what had already been discussed in some detail with the Chancellor.

It was a private dinner at the end of last year, but there is quite a lot of evidence to back up this version of the extraordinary meeting. Indeed something significant must have occurred to explain what followed. In one interview this summer, Mr Prescott declared famously that the plates were shifting. Shortly afterwards, at a press conference, he pointed out that Harold Wilson had resigned unexpectedly and that these things can happen. Mr Prescott was not seeking to cause trouble deliberately. That is not his style. Even so, neither comment could be described as a slip of the tongue. They were too precise for that.

After the waves caused by his second declaration, Mr Prescott was in some despair and went to bed early in the evening. He was woken by a phone call from Mr Blair telling him not to worry. Mr Blair manages to be calm, good humoured and decent when the media is getting excited. It is one of his supreme strengths. But did Mr Blair recognise also that Mr Prescott's observation was based partly on their private discussions? As Mr Prescott told the interviewer when he referred to the tectonic plates, "I have been involved in private discussions."

Then there is the behaviour of Gordon Brown. After the meeting chaired by Mr Prescott, the Chancellor went out of his way to assist the Prime Minister, even in relation to policies over which he had his doubts. The vote in the Commons on top- up fees for universities, when he persuaded several dissenting Brownites to support the Government, is the most specific example.

The Chancellor also made virtually no trouble over Mr Blair's five-year plans, although again he had worries about some of the policies. This was unusual. The Chancellor is gripped by policy detail. When he objects, he tends to fight his corner. He also took a direct involvement in the campaigns for the European and local election campaigns, working towards the best possible outcome. Usually he leaves these election campaigns to others.

The political personality of Mr Blair also comes into play. Leaders are often remarkable, but they are also human. Mr Blair was well known as a leader who once worried about the findings of focus groups, opinion polls and what the newspapers were writing. Personalities change in office, and Mr Blair has become resilient, but not to an extent that all these factors would have ceased to worry him.

Even in good times, Mr Blair tended to underestimate the strength of his political position (he expected a much closer result in 1997). In such grim times, it would not have been altogether surprising if Mr Blair talked along these lines at Mr Prescott's dinner: I need another year with your full support, and then I will go.

Indeed, in some ways it is reassuring rather than alarming that he appeared to do so. There were reports at the time that he had become insulated from political reality, blindly unaware of how he was perceived in some quarters. I do not believe that was ever the case.

What happened last week was therefore not just a symbol of a new Prime Ministerial mood, but a complete and dramatic switch of direction. Mr Blair is no longer making way for Mr Brown. Instead he has appointed Mr Milburn to prepare for his election campaign and the third term.

What brought about what seems to be a sensational U-turn?

Here again we can cite the public evidence. The failure of the Tories to live up to their early promise under Michael Howard changed the entire political situation from Mr Blair's perspective. Mr Blair has always been obsessed with the strength of the Conservatives. After the local and European elections, it was clear that the Conservatives were in no position to win the next general election.

Mr Blair's old focus-group guru, Philip Gould, never one of life's political optimists, was predicting another landslide win. Mr Blair overlooked Labour's terrible performance in those elections perhaps because it was not as bad as he had anticipated. The Prime Minister then managed to see off the Butler report. After which his five-year plans were seen as a sign of renewed political energy.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have hardly spoken since the local and European campaigns in June, which was when Mr Blair was becoming ambitious again. Most of the external circumstances that worried Mr Blair at the end of last year still apply, not least those relating to the war and trust. Even so, it seems that Mr Blair has applied the biggest reverse gear of the lot and asked Mr Milburn to accompany him on a new and unpredictable journey.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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