A question to be answered sooner rather than later

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The Independent Online

Many a party would have been grateful for a Commons majority of the order delivered by Tony Blair in last week's election. At 67, it compares well with the 43-seat majority secured by Margaret Thatcher when she first became Prime Minister; it is more than double the majority that Edward Heath had to settle for in 1970. While these were seen at the time as sound, governing majorities, however, it is becoming apparent that Mr Blair's 67-seat advantage may not be enough.

Many a party would have been grateful for a Commons majority of the order delivered by Tony Blair in last week's election. At 67, it compares well with the 43-seat majority secured by Margaret Thatcher when she first became Prime Minister; it is more than double the majority that Edward Heath had to settle for in 1970. While these were seen at the time as sound, governing majorities, however, it is becoming apparent that Mr Blair's 67-seat advantage may not be enough.

At issue is not whether he can get his legislation passed - although this could be in doubt if "old" Labour MPs gang up with the Opposition to thwart it - but Mr Blair's credibility as Prime Minister. Until now, his authority within the Labour Party and among his MPs rested to a large extent on his capacity to win elections. His two landslide victories elevated him beyond challenge. A more commonplace majority offers no such protection. He may have won a historic third term, but in terms of seats, Labour suffered a huge loss.

Mr Blair's defences are especially weak because it is so easy to blame him personally for the débâcle. On the doorstep, Mr Blair was widely seen as a liability. The war in Iraq and matters of trust were identified personally with the Prime Minister. Many voters - or abstainers - expressed a preference for Gordon Brown.

Mr Blair's undertaking, well before the election, that he would not stand for a fourth term has only added to his travails. It may have made his campaign double-act with Mr Brown more convincing. So far as governing is concerned, however, the effect is quite different. Far from offering reassurance, it has sown confusion. The insubordination that reportedly attended the post-election cabinet reshuffle shows how Mr Blair's authority has been circumscribed.

The formation of a government is not like the decision to go to war, which should be made collectively in cabinet and sanctioned by parliament. Such crucial personnel choices rightly lie within a Prime Minister's remit. If Mr Blair cannot reorganise departments along lines he planned before the election, if he cannot reassign ministers as he wishes, there can be but two explanations: either he lacks the authority now, or fears making enemies who could mobilise against him in future.

In announcing his decision to resign "sooner rather than later", Michael Howard probably did not intend to cause mischief for Labour, but it gave succour to Mr Blair's critics. Mr Howard's move may have unleashed internecine warfare in the Conservative Party, but the conflict should be good and over by the next election. Labour MPs and officials know only that Mr Blair intends to stand down after serving a "full" third term, whatever "full" means. What if, by then, the economy is not in such shape as to recommend the Chancellor unambiguously as heir? Labour could be in a worse state than the Tories to fight the next election. The attraction of getting the inevitable over with is clear.

Less clear is how serious the weekend assault on Mr Blair really is. It is unusual for the rivalries attending a cabinet reshuffle to be made so public, but many of the attacks - though not all - have come from predictable quarters. And the Prime Minister's most ardent supporters were quick with their rebuttals, led by the - quite disgracefully - rehabilitated David Blunkett. The real test of Mr Blair's strength, or weakness, will come when Parliament reconvenes, in the exchanges at the dispatch box and the mood of bank-benchers.

It is too early to judge whether Mr Blair's authority is in terminal decline. But it is obviously not just to Conservatives that the cry "sooner rather than later" has an appeal.

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