Suddenly, it is possible to imagine life without Tony Blair at Number 10

Tony Blair, like John Major, is more concerned about the sniping from his own side than the noise from the opposition benches
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The Independent Online

You can almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from Downing Street at the prospect, tomorrow, of packing up the House of Commons for the summer recess. In his more reflective moments, the Prime Minister might muse, with gratitude, on the reforms made to the parliamentary timetable by the source of so many of the strongest attacks on him now, Robin Cook. Thanks to the former Leader of the House, the Commons is actually rising a fortnight early.

Imagine the prospect of yet another two weeks of misery for Labour backbenchers if they were further confined to the current unbearable, oppressive, Westminster heat. True, the House will return, for the first time, for a new regular two-week session in September before the start of the party conference season. But while the temperature in Parliament should have cooled, the mood among Labour MPs will remain febrile. Recent events underline a situation far more serious for the Government than the usual dose of mid-term blues.

The atmosphere in Downing Street is eerily reminiscent of the mood there a decade ago. As a junior government whip during the summer of 1993 - the year of the sacking of the chancellor, Norman Lamont, the passage of the Maastricht Treaty legislation and the rail privatisation Bill (yes, Europe and railways were then, just as now, much in the news) - I well recall John Major hosting a reception for us in the garden of No 10. There was no air conditioning inside the building and tempers had become badly frayed.

The then prime minister was literally calculating the hours, out loud, to the end of the session and praying that he could get through his last Commons questions without another assault on him from the government's own back benches. "Just let's get through this week, Michael, and we'll be back on track by the autumn," he told me after I reported that, as transport whip, I expected to lose Tory votes on a crucial division on the Railways Bill.

Similarly Tony Blair, like Mr Major, is more concerned about the sniping from his own side than the noise from the opposition benches. The real opposition to this Government comes from the Labour Party, and no amount of spinning now seems to make any difference.

It is often suggested that "spin" was invented by this Government but it was actually during the Major years that I first became aware of the term. Whips were sent into the lobbies to "spin" a certain yarn to the press when things were going wrong. But it soon became obvious to me that no amount of spin could ever do anything except make a bad situation worse. Spin only operates when the washing machine is working. When it breaks, the spin cycle is usually the principal mechanism that fails.

A classic example of the spin cycle failing this Government can be seen by the decision to allow the Prime Minister to jet off, later this week, to Washington to address the US Congress. Whoever thought up this wheeze should be fired. The last thing Mr Blair needs, after the past fortnight's rows over "sexed-up" reports and intelligence failures over Niger, is another photo opportunity with George Bush. Nothing is more guaranteed, than further reminders of this dubious love-in, to raise the hackles of Labour MPs.

In any event, the trip is already fraught with its own dangers as American politicians indulge in their own version of the blame game over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. It was a prescient Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, who reminded the Carlton Club gathering which I attended some weeks ago, that the louder the cheers for a British prime minister from the members of Congress, the more tears there would subsequently be back home afterwards.

For the first time during Mr Blair's premiership it is possible to imagine political life without the Prime Minister. After his official visits abroad he might begin to think about relaxing in Sir Cliff Richard's Caribbean mansion. But he would be wise to take with him Sir Edward Heath's autobiography which describes in gory detail the events surrounding a previous prime minister's involvement in a dubious Middle East adventure - and a subsequent holiday in the Caribbean.

Sir Edward was the government chief whip at the time of the Suez adventure. The events had taken their toll on the health of Sir Anthony Eden but he returned "looking bronzed and clearly better". However, in the parliamentary debate a week after his return, Sir Edward recalled: "He misled the House. As I sat and watched him deny any 'foreknowledge' of Israel's invasion of Egypt, I felt like burying my head in my hands at the sight of this man I so much admired maintaining this fiction." Within three weeks of this speech, Eden had resigned.

The parallel breaks down only to the extent that, on that occasion, Britain and the US were on opposite sides of the conflict. And while Mr Blair may be exhausted he does not suffer the ill health that dogged Eden. But one wonders whether the period of reflection and reappraisal provided by a summer break might not, once again, lead to the Prime Minister gathering the rest of the Blair clan together again (as he did before the Iraq war) and discuss with them the prospect that one day, sooner rather than later, he will no longer be Prime Minister - unless weapons of mass destruction are eventually found.

It must surely be clear to most politicians and observers that Mr Blair is nearer to the end of his premiership than to its beginning. Perhaps this is why, for the second occasion in a month, Peter Hain has again spoken out about the need for Labour to talk about re-distribution - in open defiance of the ticking-off he received after raising the subject of top-rate tax. The moment a leader looks merely mortal is the moment that his authority and power begin to wane. Worse, no one fears him any more. And what else could account for Gordon Brown's mischievous comments, in the Commons, on the authenticity of Treasury documents and the laborious joke that they were not pulled off the internet or "sexed up"? Individual cabinet ministers no longer fear the power and authority of No 10.

Many Labour MPs are openly asking themselves what they are for. Apart from being permitted to indulge themselves on the foxhunting vote, nearly every attendance in a government division lobby involves a vote against what they believe. Voting for foundation hospitals, tuition fees and the abolition of trial by jury is not what Labour MPs or their general management committees expected would be the test of loyalty to the Labour movement. At least, even with the unpopular excesses of Major and Thatcher, Tory MPs were pressed into voting for measures more or less consistent with their party's traditional beliefs. By contrast, Labour MPs are fed up with being asked to vote for measures which are not popular, certainly not Labour - and not even "New" Labour.