11 May 2005


There has been a lot of speculation since I last posted on this – much of it wishful thinking, whether by Blair's enemies, who want him out as soon as possible, or by his most ardent admirers, who think he should go on right up to the next general election.

As for me, I'm sticking on 18 months or maybe two years hence, for three reasons. First, there is no pressing reason for him to go before then. Unless the reports of today's meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party are complete fabrications, there too few Labour MPs who want him out now to force a leadership election this year. The Labour Party constitution requires 20 per cent of MPs to vote for a leadership election to start the process – 72 MPs in the current PLP – which would inevitably be protracted, bloody and disastrous for Labour's standing, and most Labour MPs know it. I can't see it happening (nor should it). The alternative scenario for forcing a leadership election, through a de facto vote of no confidence at the party conference, is just as implausible. As things stand, Blair can go at the time of his own choosing.

Secondly, though it's related because it's one reason that the pressure for him to go now is weak, even those who want him out in due course (most supporters of Gordon Brown) are aware that there are a few nasty jobs that need doing for which it would be as well to let Blair take most of the flak. The most obvious is leading the yes campaign in the European constitution referendum, but there are others, among them seeing through the proposed council tax revaluation.

And, thirdly, it makes sense for Blair to go a couple of years or so before the next general election both to give his successor a chance to establish his or her credibility (OK, his, because at present there's not a man or woman who could beat Brown) and to prevent the leadership election process, which will take a couple of months at least, being blown off course by unforeseen events.

Of course, my crystal ball might be faulty. A French "no" at the end of the month would remove one of the reasons Gordon Brown wants Blair to hang on for a while – and the calls for Blair's head could become irresistible if the Tories this autumn elect a charismatic new leader who takes them to 50 per cent in the opinion polls at Labour's expense. Like, er, Boris . . . Alternatively, there are circumstances in which Blair might decide to stay until the last possible minute. And then there are all the things that could go wrong in the war on terror and in Iraq, key figures being run over by buses, the kind of girls who make the News of the World . . . Oh, all right, I've got a hunch, that's all.

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