Miscalculation costs Blair dearly

FOR a Prime Minister who is one of the most calculating and media savvy in history, it was a miscalculation of enormous proportions.When Tony Blair summoned broadcasters for an impromptu interview after Labour's annual conference...

By Graham Dines

FOR a Prime Minister who is one of the most calculating and media savvy in history, it was a miscalculation of enormous proportions.

When Tony Blair summoned broadcasters for an impromptu interview after Labour's annual conference in Brighton in September 2004, and announced he was going into hospital for treatment to his irregular heartbeat, he tried to staunch speculation about his future by declaring that if he won a third term in power “I would serve a full term but I would not then stand for a fourth term.”

It was a typical New Labour piece of manipulation. Just as his Government has marginalised Parliament by making major policy announcements first in the media, he had treated his own party faithful with utter contempt.


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Instead of standing up before them in Brighton and telling them of his plans, he summoned the media to his hotel suite as delegates were making their way home.

The Prime Minister had hoped to stop the rumour mill about his exit from power strategy. And he reassured friends - those that go running to the media- that he could somehow serve a full term and still give his successor time to “bed in” before the battle for a fourth term began.

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If any of his advisers had sat down and considered what he was saying, they would have known it a non-starter. Some even floated the thought that Mr Blair could remain as Prime Minister but stand down as Labour leader and remain above the political fray during an election campaign before handing over to his successor.

In effect, it was a plan offering to have one person in charge as leader of the party and one leader of the country. Not only was this utter nonsense and constitutionally dubious, it also showed an absolute disregard for the voters by assuming that Labour would win a fourth term.

The man he had to satisfy was Gordon Brown, his brooding Chancellor who has been waiting in the wings for his chance to take over. But the Blair-Brown feud - always denied but obvious even to Nelson on top of his column - turned nastier and uglier.

The hatchet was buried in Gordon's back during the 2005 election campaign, that saw “Team TB-GB” criss-crossing the country together, but it was only the most naive Labour supporters who were unable to see through this masquerade.

Mr Brown's friends and supporters emerged from that election campaign champing at the bit for their crack at No 10, and Westminster gossip about exactly when Mr Blair would go intensified with every month that passed.

A hare was run suggesting Mr Blair would hang on so long that his successor would inherit an administration so tired and tainted that defeat at the ballot box to the revitalised Conservatives was inevitable.

That's a complete injustice to Mr Blair. What's more likely is that he was looking around to groom an alternative to Gordon Brown - increasingly seen as turning voters off Labour - before naming the day when he would quit.

Whether Home Secretary John Reid or Rural Affairs Secretary David Miliband will take up the gauntlet and challenge Mr Brown for what he regards as rightfully his, remains to be seen. Both Blairite to the core, that could be their undoing if Labour wants to return to its socialist roots.

Every action and decision Mr Blair has taken since the General Election has been viewed through the prism of his eventual departure. The growing morass of the aftermath in Iraq and the maelstrom of Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon have not helped Mr Blair's cause.

He is no longer Mr Invincible.

The election of David Cameron as a new-look Tory leader, turning the party's opinion poll ratings round, heightened the anxiety of New Labour MPs, some with perilously small majorities.

That nervousness was reflected in the letter signed by Labour MPs that went No 10, urging the premier to set a timetable for his resignation.

One of Mr Blair's problems is that his advisers aren't Labour to their finger tips. They live in splendid luxury among London's metrosexual without any knowledge of the hard slog faced by a typical Labour activist. That's evident from the ludicrous plan for Saint Anthony to make his exit on Songs of Praise.

When Mr Blair appeared to suggest, in an interview in Australia earlier this year, that it might have been a mistake to announce he would quit during this parliament, it was the understatement of his long premiership.

He believed that making his 2004 pronouncement would quell the speculation. In reality, his comments served only to start it in earnest. He's now in a corner from which his only escape route is covered in ignominy.

THE IPSWICH ASSASSIN

CHRIS Mole's pivotal role in the downfall of Tony Blair seems to have taken the Ipswich Labour MP completely by surprise.

What started out as being a private letter to the Prime Minister blew up in Mr Mole's face as details became public and the names of signatories given to the media - probably on the express instructions of the Prime Minister who was shaken and angered at what he regarded at the disloyalty of people who depended on him for their careers and indeed their election as an MP in the first place.

That view was emphasised by Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt who snapped: “It looks as if they are trying to engineer a coup. That . . . is an act of immense disloyalty and foolishness.”

Chris Mole, a model backbencher, took the calculated gamble that signing a “please go for the sake of the party” letter which had been circulating at Westminster all week, would be seen by the Prime Minister as helpful in determining the date when to stand aside.

Given a severe dressing down by the Government Chief Whip Jacqui Smith, Mr Mole quit his modest post as a parliamentary private secretary. He will hope that whoever succeeds Tony Blair will put him back on the payroll.

The 15 signatories have got partially what they wanted. Mr Blair has said he's going within 12 months but still refuses to give a timetable for exactly when. Expect the unrest and open warfare to continue unabated until the door of 10 Downing Streets shuts behind him.

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