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So Blair has come third in the local elections. That’s not good for him. In response to this, and the scandals surround the Labour party for last fortnight, he’s performed a reshuffle so huge that it begins to feel like he’s got a whole new deck. Charles Clarke has been unceremoniously sacked, saying that he disagrees with Blair, and Prescott is angry too at the prospect of losing the bigger part of his responsibility whilst retaining his title and his salary. If that happened to me, I certainly wouldn’t be angry, I’d probably be cheering, but that’s Prescott for you.
Patricia Hewitt has retained her post, despite the service that she is trying to reform revolting against her, and losing all faith in her abilities. And Jack Straw, who’s seemingly done nothing wrong, gets demoted. Sensible.
Earlier in the week, I couldn’t understand why Clarke hadn’t resigned. It would now appear that he genuinely beleived he could carry on. This was actually good news for Mr Blair, because it meant he had a big headline-grabber for election results day, so the fact that Labour have performed appallingly could be buried.
Yesterday, I was unsure whether he’d pulled off something incredible, and made a fantastic political play, or whether this really would be the beginning of the end. But the news today that in a week’s time, seventy-five backbench MPs are to deliver a letter telling him to resgin or he will be challenged changes everything. This simply isn’t how Blair wanted to go.
Blair and Brown are holding talks this weekend about the future of the party. Basically, it’s pretty clear that they’re talking about when Blair should go. On Monday, Blair has a press conference at which this topic surely can’t be ignored. But what can Blair do now? If he resigned next week, he’d look pressured into it, which isn’t what he wants to do – he wants to go according to his own timetable. If he leaves it much longer, he will be forced out by his own party. If he announces a future resignation date, perhaps there’s scope for a few headlines now about him being forced out, but at the time of the transition of power, perhaps that will be more forgotten.
Could he announce that he’ll stand down on his tenth anniversary as Prime Minister? That would give about a year for the transition to take place, satisfy most of the party, and make it look like he was going according to his own timetable. It would also allow him the honour of making an official ‘final’ conference speech without plotters murmuring in the background. If backbenchers are more insistent, he could always announce that he’ll leave at the end of the year, which would have similar advantages.
But, of course, announcing in advance makes him a true lame duck, something that he and the party would probably object to over such a long period. So what can he do? Probably very little. He’s been greedy, and left the transition too long for it to happen in any symbolic, pretty way.
The idea that he won’t get his last wish after nearly a decade of leadership almost makes me feel sorry for him. Almost.