The overshadowing of Tony Blair

Political Editor Graham Dines witnesses Gordon Brown's 10th - and possibly last - Budget speech.

IT was left, predictably, to Conservative leader David Cameron to put the question which was on the lips of everyone at Westminster yesterday: was this Gordon Brown's last Budget?

But Mr Cameron had no intention of asking the Chancellor - he fired both barrels at Tony Blair, as speculation mounts that the Prime Minister will quit Downing Street sooner than he wants, making way for Mr Brown to take charge of the Labour Party and the country.

As Mr Blair becomes increasingly detached from his own party over public service reform and with Labour left reeling over revelations that its election war chest was raised secretly in the form of £14m of loans from individuals - some of whom had been nominated for peerages - many within Labour's ranks think it's time to say “thank your and goodnight” to the man who has led them to an historic three election victories in a row.

It was an opportunity too good for Mr Cameron to miss at question time in the Commons yesterday, the warm-up act before the Chancellor's big performance.

Mr Cameron simply asked: “Can you tell us is this the Chancellor's last Budget?”

Mr Blair replied: “What I can tell you is I think you will be sitting on that side of the House for a long time to come.”

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The Tory leader tried again, saying: “Oh come on, don't be so coy! Let me put the question in the way that I suspect about 350 Labour MPs would like it put - when's he off?'

Mr Blair replied: “I regret to have to tell you that we shall be here, I shall be here, for the time that is necessary to carry through the programme upon which we were elected since I might just remind you there was a General Election less than a year ago and for the third time we won it!”

Whether the Prime Minister actually believed what he said is another matter. There must come a point when he finally realises that he's past his sell-by date and has to stand aside for the good of the party and its prospects of winning the next election.

He's often been compared to Margaret Thatcher - he has the same determination to push through reform no matter how unpopular.

Mrs Thatcher's downfall came when she failed to recognise the signals that had been hoisted that she should step down of her own accord. She refused - and Tory MPs, admittedly much to the revulsion of the voluntary wing of the party - mounted a putsch and sent her packing with tears in her eyes.

If the Chancellor has been frustrated at the length of Mr Blair's swansong, he's been good at keeping it hidden. Yesterday, with the talk all about the Prime Minister's future, he was emboldened to bring it into the open.

His Budget speech began with a teasing reference to his own future job prospects. He had greater force because it was unscripted - it wasn't in the copies of the Budget announcements circulated to MPs and journalists.

“It is a great honour and privilege to deliver a 10th Budget,” he said. “Honourable Members may be aware that the last Chancellor to deliver 10 Budgets in a row was Nicholas Vansitart in 1822.

“In order to win the House's indulgence to be able to deliver so many Budgets he did, of course, have to agree to abolish income tax.

“I regret to inform the House this is a precedent I do not intend to follow - at least this year.”

When Mr Brown bowed out of the race to become Labour leader after the death of John Smith, he may have dreamed to a three term Labour government. But surely he expected to have taken over the reins before now.

Publicly, he might be full of pride that he has made 10 Budget speeches. Privately, as an ambitious politician, he just wants the Prime Minister to move on.

The pressure was not on Gordon Brown yesterday. Sitting alongside him, the Prime Minister nodded occasionally at some of the more important points of the Budget, but he looked far from happy, gazing up to the rafters and no doubt reflecting on just how his party has turned against him.

Tony Blair will never be forgiven in some Labour circles for the war on Iraq - a spurious invasion on the back of claims of weapons of mass destruction which turned out not to exist.

Yes, he may have won the subsequent election, but his critics are circling the Downing Street tent with the message that Mrs Thatcher ignored 16 years' ago: It's time to go.

Mr Brown crowed that this was a budget for the future - no doubt he meant his future - but in the game of who had the best soundbites in the Commons, the hands down winner was the Tory leader, the fresh young face of British politics opposite 10th Budget Brown.

For a reason which escapes me, it's the Leader of the Opposition who replies to the Budget speech. It's a stiff test for any politician to think on his feet against a well rehearsed performance by a Chancellor.

Mr Cameron managed his sound bites with ease. The “fossil fuel” Chancellor was the “roadblock to reform”. His unimpressive record with the nation's finances made Mr Brown's well qualified to move to be Treasurer of the Labour Party - a cruel but funny reference to the Prime Minister's little difficulties on loans.

“We wondered today whether we would get a Budget or a leadership bid - and we didn't get much of either. You can tell how big the crisis in the health service is. The health service didn't even get a mention.”

We can already look forward to the Brown-Cameron battle in the years to come, but what of the Liberal Democrats' new leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

Sir Ming will be the first to admit he's not a good joke teller. He fluffs his one-liners, although Lib Dems believe he'll have the last laugh if the country grows to like his gravitas and unerringly good manners.

The again, when the Brown-Cameron show really gets going after Gordon moves into No 10, Sir Ming may be left on the sidelines and his party squeezed between the born again Tories and a rejuvenated Labour Party.

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