Leading article: A question of timing and tactics in a pointless fight

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The Independent Online

Whatever one's views on Tony Blair - and this newspaper can hardly be accused of being one of the Prime Minister's cheerleaders - we should not lose sight of the fact that he is the leader of a party that won a general election only 16 months ago. He has a mandate from the British electorate. One can question the fairness of the electoral system that delivered that mandate, but a mandate it certainly is under the current rules of play.

This should be borne in mind as the Labour Party disintegrates into a seemingly interminable squabble over the timing of Mr Blair's exit from Downing Street. At Westminster, the clamour is growing for Mr Blair to lay out some sort of "timetable" for his departure. Such a timetable would make Mr Blair even more of a lame duck then he is at present, and he knows it. It would not quell speculation about his departure and his successor, merely intensify it.

These demands are also spurious. The MPs responsible plead that they simply want some clarity regarding Mr Blair's plans, but their real intention is to ease him nearer to the exit without appearing overtly disloyal. Indeed, there is something rather distasteful about reports of former Blairites such as Sion Simon and Chris Bryant turning up the pressure on the Prime Minster. These people were elected on the coat tails of Mr Blair. And they voted in favour of invading Iraq, the very issue that has so gravely damaged Mr Blair's reputation in the country. Their disingenuous behaviour now, as they fret about their own skins, goes some way to explaining why so many people are cynical about politics.

The issue of Mr Blair's departure is, in reality, becoming quite clear cut. He has said that he is leaving. He has announced that he will step down before the next election and give his successor ample time to prepare. Yesterday's leaked memo, appearing to outline a risible farewell tour for Mr Blair, would seem to indicate that he is not planning to renege on that commitment. Even his most die-hard supporters are no longer talking about him serving "a full third term". As the Environment Secretary David Miliband said yesterday in a refreshingly straightforward intervention, the overwhelming likelihood is that he will go at some point within the next 12 months.

The Labour Party - and its rival camps - needs to calm down. The only beneficiaries of this current self-inflicted crisis are their rivals, especially the reinvigorated Conservatives. Mr Blair should rein in his so-called outriders, whose primary purpose at the moment seems to be to antagonise Mr Brown. The Prime Minister's camp should stop attempting to lock his successor into a Blairite straitjacket, a deluded and rather insulting stance. The Chancellor, meanwhile, should ensure that his allies desist in their demands that Mr Blair announce a timetable for departure. Mr Brown has been patient; he must be patient a short while longer if he does not want to inherit a broken crown.

The alternative is clear. Labour is starting to look like a desperate and divided party - and, as we are so often reminded, electorates tend to punish divided parties. The irony is that on most policy issues there is actually a substantial degree of consensus within the Government. We are not witnessing a rerun of recent history, when the Conservatives towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign were divided on important issues.

Ultimately, this remains a Shakespearian struggle for the throne between two men who were for so long friends and allies. Already, it is convulsing their domain and quickening the pulse of their enemies. They would do well to call a truce. Otherwise, there is a risk that this political farce could end in tragedy for New Labour.