Will Blair leave in tears?

SPARE us the tears please - that's my appeal to Labour MPs, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.Remember the scenes when Margaret Thatcher, stabbed in the back by her ungrateful Cabinet and backbenchers, quit Downing Street in 1990? As the television cameras cut to a close up in her official Jaguar, she was dabbing her eyes as the tears flowed.

SPARE us the tears please - that's my appeal to Labour MPs, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

Remember the scenes when Margaret Thatcher, stabbed in the back by her ungrateful Cabinet and backbenchers, quit Downing Street in 1990? As the television cameras cut to a close up in her official Jaguar, she was dabbing her eyes as the tears flowed.

A woman who had led her party to three successive General Election victories and spent a whole calendar decade in charge of the nation, probably deserved better from people whose jobs had only been achieved on the back of those electoral successes.

But politics is a crude and cruel business and those MPs and ministers, staring electoral defeat in the face because of the Government's unpopularity, wanted to hang on to their jobs. Mrs T wouldn't take the hint. She believed in her own immortality, failing to appreciate that support for her and the Conservative Party was haemorrhaging.

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Mrs Thatcher showed no sign of wanting to quit so she was forced out, to the horror of her adoring supporters in the voluntary wing of the party.

Fast forward 16 years to a similar situation. The longer Tony Blair hangs about, the more likely Labour MPs will openly turn on him and force a leadership contest.

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The difference between Thatcher and Blair is that while she was determined to go on and on, he has indicated that he'll go before the next election. Following Labour's disastrous showing in last week's council polls, his troops don't want him hanging about too long, especially as the Conservatives are now way ahead in the opinion polls.

Mr Blair warns that to issue a timetable now would be to “paralyse” the Government. Yet he says that at some point there will be a “stable and orderly transition” to his successor - which he insists he would prefer to be Gordon Brown. He's now having talks with colleagues to decide exactly when.

My guess? He'll announce on May 1 2007 - the 10th anniversary of his landslide victory - that he's standing down. His successor will then be elected before the start of the parliamentary recess and Labour's conference will turn into be a victory celebration for Brown, a joyful farewell to the most successful leader Labour has ever had, and a springboard for a snap election.

SUPPORT for Labour is at a 14-year low according to a Populus poll for The Times which found the Conservatives have stormed into an eight-point lead. Labour's 30-point rating is lowest since 1992.

The Prime Minister's drastic reshuffle was dismissed by three in four voters as a bid to deflect attention from the foreign prisoner releases, NHS job cuts, John Prescott's affair and poor local election results.

David Cameron also achieved something managed by none of his predecessors by moving ahead of Mr Blair in public popularity. And he enjoyed an even bigger lead over Chancellor Gordon Brown.

MPs from all parties launched a scathing attack against the enforced merge of county police forces during a debate on the Police and Justice Bill, but the Government was able to fend off Tory demands for a series of referendums, insisting it was an issue for MPs to decide on.

Essex police authority is considering holding a referendum on plans to merge it with Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire while Suffolk is against merging with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, insisting that if it is forced to lose its independence, the best option for the county is a coming together with Norfolk and Essex.

Conservative MPs called for ballots to be held in affected areas before any change went ahead. Simon Burns (Chelmsford West) challenged Home Office Minister Liam Byrne, making his maiden appearance in his new role, on the difference between the Government polling people in the North East on regional government and “not wanting to listen to the wishes of local people with regard to the regionalisation of police forces as a result of mergers”.

Mr Burns said it was bizarre that the Home Secretary was forcing on Beds, Herts and Essex an amalgamation that no one in Essex wanted, at a cost of £29m. “Essex is one of the largest counties in the country geographically as well as one of the largest in terms of population. Despite all the representations and wishes of the local community, the Government refuses to listen and allow Essex to remain a stand alone force.”

This had confused many people in Essex because the next-door county, Kent, had been granted strategic status, as had Hampshire. He suggested the reason was that Kent had a number of highly marginal Labour seats while the Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee was a Hampshire MP.

Mr Byrne said mergers were taking place because HM Inspectorate of Constabulary argued most police forces did not provide adequate protection in counter terrorism and dealing with serious organised crime, concluding that the current 43 force structure was no longer fit for purpose and should change.

He added that existing legislation allowed for mergers if police forces volunteered or if the Home Secretary deemed it necessary, a move which would trigger debate in both Houses of Parliament. “There is a place for referendums and I think, in our parliamentary system, that place should be reserved for major issues of constitutional significance such as devolution, such as our future relationship with the European Union.”

John Gummer (Con, Suffolk Coastal) said Suffolk did not wish to be amalgamated with Essex, Norfolk, or Cambridgeshire. “It is one of the best police forces in the country. The Government cannot find any support for such amalgamations.”

Nick Herbert, Tory spokesman on police matters, pointed out that only one amalgamation - Cumbria and Lancashire - had been agreed to by both of the police authorities concerned.

Labour's Frank Cook (Stockton North) launched an outspoken attack on the Home Office's approach to the planned amalgamations as “illogical, impolite and verging on the insane.” He pressed the Government to back down or he would not support them in a vote.

Stewart Jackson (Tory, Peterborough) paid tribute to Cambridgeshire and Suffolk police authorities for refusing to be bullied into “a so-called voluntary amalgamation. What will the impact be on my constituents' council tax bills? Will democratic and lay justice representation be the same in Cambridgeshire as in Norfolk and Suffolk, under the proposals?”

A PLEA for both Government and opposition to do more to break down mental health barriers, which lead to social exclusion, was made in the Commons by Chelmsford West's Simon Burns. “We must focus on it, just as people who are interested and involved more generally with disabilities have concentrated and fought for rights and improvements in society.”

He looked forward to the time when mental health received the same sort of sympathy given to patients suffering from cancer.

BURY St Edmunds MP David Ruffley has calculated that if ministers introduce surcharges for home improvements such as patios, conservatories, and double glazing - known as “discrete capital values” - average Band D council tax will rise by £365 to £1,540 in Mid Suffolk and £356 to £1,481 in St Edmundsbury.

JOHN West, UKIP's 2005 parliamentary candidate in Suffolk Central and Ipswich North, won the regional heat in Chelmsford of his party's Opportunity Knocks public speaking contest with a speech on the subject of regionalisation and control by the EU. Runner up was Ken Wight, last year's General Election candidate in Watford, and the judge was party treasurer Andrew Smith from Epping Forrest.

MORE than 140 MPs from all parties have signed an Early Day Motion to stop Canadian black bears being shot, maimed and killed to provide bearskin hats for the British Army's five Guards regiments. It takes the entire hide of one bear to make just one Guards' headpiece and when mother bears are killed, orphaned cubs are left behind to starve.

ALTHOUGH I'm no EU hater, sometimes Brussels does send me up the wall. Wednesday was one such occasion. Apparently, at the instigation of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, all EU passport holders will be issued with an entitlement card to make clear the rights they already have, and how to use them effectively.

NORFOLK South West MP Christopher Fraser has decked out a horsebox and converted it into an unlikely battle bus to meet and greet folk in his 1,000 square mile constituency. It includes a luxurious Persian rug, desk, fireplace, flowers, paintings, wood panelling and a chandelier.

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