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Monday, February 05, 2007 

Are you still here?

It's starting to look as if Blair's days truly are numbered. The Sundays, as they are wont to do, were full of speculation over loans for peerages, with the News of the Screws being unusual in actually producing a political story claiming that Levy, Turner and Sir Christopher Evans, who donated £1m, are all to be charged, with Blair being questioned for a third time, possibly under caution. While believing anything at all in the Screws is foolhardy (just look at this pack of lies and propaganda about the Birmingham terror arrests), today's Times (the website has a hideous trendy new-look, complete with a close to unreadable tiny font) has followed it up with backing some of the Screws' claims, while carrying John McTernan's denials that the information had come from him.

If any of the above happens, then Blair's position would finally be untenable. In a way, if this is how it happens, then it will be the cliche that his reign will come to an end with a whimper rather than a bang. Looking back, it's obvious now to everyone that Blair should have been kicked out over Iraq, and he might well have been had the establishment not found favour in the choice of Lord Hutton as the presiding judge for the inquiry into Dr David Kelly's death. The media themselves, and indeed, us, additionally deserve some of the blame. While we cried whitewash, few of us demanded that Blair should resign, with even less of the newspapers doing so. As ever, the Murdoch empire may have much to answer for in that regard; the unstinting support of the Sun for the prime minister, which continues to this day, has to have had some bearing on the length of his stay. We the electorate though should not be let off the hook: we had the opportunity in 2005 to get rid of the lot of them, but the Tories didn't help matters by conspiring to be an even worse alternative than New Labour.

Some still though hold the view that Blair hanging on until after May is in the interests of everyone. Jackie Ashley, usually one of the more perceptive, if unashamedly Brownite commentators on the Grauniad, has fallen for it:

Two odd thoughts this morning. Tony Blair should not quit. And things are actually going rather well for Labour. No, I haven't taken leave of my senses. Having called for Blair to hang up his boots on several occasions, mainly because of the disaster that is the Iraq war, I don't believe he can walk off just now. To do so - despite the support for that idea from many in his party and, overwhelmingly, from the public - would be an admission of guilt over the loans-for-peerages affair. He, like the rest of us, must wait to see if there are more developments from Scotland Yard.

It may well be seen as that, but if he does go now and he isn't personally charged, then he can claim to have been vindicated. If he stays and any of his staff or Levy are charged, then he will have to go anyway, and in disgrace. Unlikely as his being charged is, if it that happened then he could have possibly the most ignominious history of a prime minister yet written. If there's one thing we know Blair wants, it's at least something of a legacy, and unlike Churchill, he isn't going to be able to write it himself.

Besides, his staying just further entrenches the current impasse in politics. Some are calling it a crisis, but it would be better described as a deep trough which politics has fallen into, thanks to Blair's imminent departure and the loans for peerages inquiry. Everyone is waiting for either the former to occur or for the second to end. Until either happens, everything at the moment seems inconsequential by comparison.

Yet for now this is for the birds. Gordon Brown is not pushing him to stand aside immediately, and there is nobody else with the heft or willpower to make Blair bring forward his own timetable. Furthermore, a Blair resignation this month or next would actually make life harder for his party. It isn't all farewell speeches. Even some of his harsher critics say he is needed for the final push to get the Northern Ireland parties back into a reconstituted assembly before the deadline of March 26. Once that is done, it would be sensible to announce to Labour's national executive committee exactly what his timetable will be, almost certainly involving stepping down after the May elections. That way he takes the rap (and rightly so) for the May election results, and still leaves time for the new leader to bed in well before the autumn conference season.

Northern Ireland is almost a done deal; as Peter Hain has rightly made clear, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can't now reach agreement on power-sharing after Sinn Fein abandoned one of its longest standing principles on not co-operating with or recognising the police, then they still don't deserve to be able to govern themselves. It can be argued that Blair might have to do some additional prodding, if Hain can't manage it alone, but if he was to go beforehand this could be handled by Brown or Bertie Ahern, if necessary.

If Blair was to go now, then the election process could still be conducted in time for the May elections. It would be more than possible for the campaigning for that to be merged with the campaigning for the local elections, with Brown and his opponents (it might turn out to be just John McDonnell; John Reid is tainted, Charles Clarke probably couldn't get enough signatories, while David Miliband and Alan Johnson have made clear they're not interested, and neither is well enough known anyway) making their own cases for just why Labour should be supported even in a time of flux. It's tempting for Blair to stay and to take the blame for the likely disaster, but the mood in the country is that he should go now. If he did, it's still conceivable that the mood could change. The longer he stays, the more everyone's reminded of just why he hasn't gone yet.

What Labour really needs is a medium-term plan for dealing with the appalling damage caused by the cash-for-honours row, and the erosion of trust it has brought. There is a rising revolt against Jack Straw's latest plans for a part-elected, part-appointed House of Lords. Last week's cabinet meeting was a long way from rubber-stamping the plans, and that's before the rest of the Commons and the Lords themselves get a look in. Whatever the intellectual case for a mixed chamber - or indeed an all-appointed one as set out by David Steel on this page - suspicion of undue influence and malign patronage is fixed in the public mind. We need to go all elected, ending for ever the chuckles about cheque books and coronets.

What better arena could there be for discussing and debating all of this than the election process for both leader and deputy leader? This is potentially a great opportunity for involving the Labour membership in a far greater democratic say in what policies should be taken forward than ever is allowed at the annual conference.

What is clear is that Labour needs a new constitutional deal that ends this dismal history of political sleaze. It doesn't matter if it comes this month or after May. But it can be done, a new political tone can be set, and many in the party want it. That surely is rare good news for Labour.

The one thing Ashley misses out is that the sooner it happens the better. Both for Labour and the country. Everyone is just waiting for Blair to do the decent thing, but then it could be argued we've been already spent 9 years doing just that.

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