Mystic Martin

My powers as a soothsayer looked a little bit wobbly on my return from holiday. In my first column after the break I suggested that Tony Blair could announce the timetable for his departure “well in advance” of party conference. Oops! Such are the risks of political prophecy. In Thursday’s Times the PM made it clear he had no intention of doing anything quite so sensible. Instead he had decided to allow civil war to break out in the Labour Party.

Sorry, but even I didn’t think he would be quite so silly. More significantly, nor did my ultra-Blairite source, who thought it would be madness not to announce the timetable before Manchester. Although he was wrong to be so convinced Blair would outline his plans, he was right in two significant ways: firstly he said that if the PM left it too late “the situation will become intolerable and it will be impossible to push through new reforms”. That is quite possibly already the case. And secondly, he siad that that it would be entirely in character for Blair to delay the decision, which he duly did.

The Prime Minister is becoming an increasingly islolated figure and is now flying virtually solo. The idea that the week’s events were a closely coordinated Blairite plan are fanciful. Even his closest political allies recognise that Blair himself is becoming a serious problem and even a potential block on the reforms necessary to secure the new Labour legacy.

In today’s papers, Francis Elliott’s reporting and analysis in the Independent on Sunday is spot on as usual. As Francis says, many Labour MPs up to cabinet level now believe Blair is seriously deluded in refusing to commit to a timetable. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer is also correct to suggest that even Blair’s closest allies agreed that he would have to agree a timetable before party conference “if the gathering in Manchester was not to turn into a riot of speculation and agitation”. That is now what we will have at the end of the month: all the more interesting for the commentariat, but devastating for the party.

Having made the Labour Party electable, Tony Blair seems intent on reducing it to the state in which Neil Kinnock found it in 1983.