Blair: PM but not Labour leader?

A former Labour insider says a scenario is being devised allowing Tony Blair to step down as party leader but stay as Prime Minister. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at this very un-British solution IF we are to believe former Labour strategist Derek Draper, the Prime Minister and his allies have come up with a cast iron plan for Tony Blair to cling to power, even while his domestic authority drains away.

A former Labour insider says a scenario is being devised allowing Tony Blair to step down as party leader but stay as Prime Minister. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at this very un-British solution

IF we are to believe former Labour strategist Derek Draper, the Prime Minister and his allies have come up with a cast iron plan for Tony Blair to cling to power, even while his domestic authority drains away.

And typically for a person who regards himself as presidential, it seems to be based on how the United States handles the transition of power from second-term 'lame duck' presidents.

According to Draper, what the Blairites want to do is this: at September's party conference, Mr Blair will announce he is quitting as leader of the Labour Party but will remain as Prime Minister until the next election.


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Whoever is elected leader in his place will then take the party into the election campaign, and after polling day, Mr Blair will immediately quit and the Queen will send for his successor.

To keep himself above the fray, presumably - although this has not been made clear - Mr Blair will not seek re-election as MP for Sedgefield.

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There is no precedent in British politics for such a dodgy deal. If true, it is arrogant beyond belief.

It's happened the other way round. Neville Chamberlain quit as Prime Minister in 1940 and was succeeded by Winston Churchill. However, Chamberlain remained as Conservative Party leader until his death, when Churchill was elected to take charge of the Tories.

When Mr Blair announced 18 months ago that he intended to serve a full term as Prime Minister, this is likely to have been the scenario worked out by his personal advisers in Downing Street.

Put crudely, it's known as: how to shaft Gordon once again.

It's well documented that Mr Brown was persuaded, reluctantly, to stand aside and give Tony Blair a free run at the Labour leadership in 1994 following the death of John Smith.

The deal was that Mr Blair would serve two terms if Labour won the General Election, before stepping aside in favour of his Chancellor.

He didn't, and he's resisted all blandishments to give a timetable for his resignation. If Draper - a former adviser to one of New Labour's chief architects Peter Mandelson - is to be believed, we now know why. Such a deal would allow Tony Blair to achieve his personal goal of being the longest serving PM since Robert Walpole.

And it's why open warfare has once again broken out between supporters of Tony Blair and the man who hankers after the top job, Gordon Brown, even though the two will put up an apparent show of unity this week when they launch Labour's local elections manifesto.

The Brownite argument is simple, and perfectly understandable. Why should the Labour Party sanction such a blatant attempt to hold on to office? - it's un-British and massages our unwritten constitution.

It also means that if the Prime Minister makes an unpopular decision - let's suggest, for example, surgical military strikes against Iran - he won't have to carry the can at the next election. It will be the leader of the Labour Party who gets the blame.

But there's one fatal flaw, which is another example of utter arrogance on the part of Downing Street as exposed by Draper.

The plan predicates Labour winning the next election. I know Labour thinks it's destined for perpetual glory, but the British people might have another idea.

It's difficult to imagine Gordon Brown wanting to be Labour leader and never Prime Minister - he'd be following Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, John Clynes, George Lansbury, Hugh Gaitskill, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, and John Smith, and Tory leaders Austen Chamberlain, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard, all of whom failed to achieve the top job.

Mr Brown's ambition is to mould the party in his own image and then seek a mandate in his own right.

But hang on a minute, Draper says there's a second part to the plan.

Gordon must be stopped from becoming the next leader of the Labour Party. He must never be Prime Minister.

If Tony is allowed to step down as leader but not as Prime Minister, why not ensure a true Blairite inherits the mantle?

It's now increasingly likely that when there is a leadership contest, whatever the circumstances, Gordon Brown won't be given a clear run. He'll be challenged by a loyal supporter of Mr Blair.

I'd always assumed Dr John Reid would put his spanner in the works. If not him, then perhaps Charles Clarke would have a go.

But the name being canvassed is Alan Milburn, former health secretary and the man in charge of Labour's 2005 re-election campaign.

He's part of the North East mafia of Blair acolytes. His constituency of Darlington adjoins Sedgefield.

And he'd be the stop-gap Labour leader until Mr Blair's real choice is ready - South Shields MP David Miliband, a former Downing Street adviser and the man now working out how to neutralise the Tories' power bases in the shires by replacing county councils with unitary authorities.

The leadership plan would have to be approved by Labour's ruling National Executive Committee. It knows that Mr Blair is a huge influence on the world stage but, like Margaret Thatcher and the Tories, in 1990, is losing his grip on his party.

Members of the NEC would have to judge whether Labour MPs, let alone the electorate, would tolerate it.

There's one other fly in the Downing Street ointment which may well scupper the cunning plan.

The cash for ermine row shows no sign of going away. If prosecutions follow, the Prime Minister will almost certainly have to step down.

That would hugely damage Labour. And possibly the only person who could salvage the party's standing would be Gordon Brown.

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