It may seem extraordinary that, with two spectacular election victories under his belt and a third likely, there should be so much speculation about whether Tony Blair can survive 2004 - to the extent that our cover story this week explores his alternative job prospects. Yet every day, it becomes clearer that the Prime Minister's error over Iraq was so catastrophic, so patent an example of bad judgement, so contrary to the spirit of his party as to pollute the entire new Labour project. Nobody should shed tears for Saddam Hussein or doubt that most Iraqis rejoice at his downfall and subsequent capture. But what supposedly made Saddam different from dozens of other brutal dictators around the world (of whom some are treated as friends of the west) was the threat he posed to British and American security. Not a scrap of support for the existence of such a threat has been found. If, as Mr Blair says, there is now "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories", why can the laboratories themselves not be found? The claim seemed so absurd to Paul Bremer, America's equivalent of a colonial governor in Iraq, that until told that it had been made by the PM, he suggested it was part of some devious attempt to undermine US and British policy.
Most political claims can be justified one way or another with sufficient massage of facts and figures; alternatively, it can be denied the claims were ever made in the form that people thought they were made. But Mr Blair was unequivocal. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; no ifs and buts; the PM knew more than he could tell us. Now the news from Iraq is just as unequivocal. Nobody is bothering to look for WMDs any more. Mr Blair's insistence that he really meant "programmes" or just "intentions to acquire" makes him look both comic and pathetic.
The result is that everything else his government says and does becomes suspect. Are the figures that show progress towards eradicating child poverty also sexed up? Can we believe anything we are told about improvements in health or education? Are the imminent terrorist attacks of which ministers warn as illusory as Saddam's WMDs? Mr Blair's authority is now so eroded that he does not get a hearing even when he deserves it. For top-up university fees, for example, there is a strong social democratic case to be made. But nobody would listen to Mr Blair making it, even if he were capable of doing so. The whole issue has become so bound up with the political fallout from Iraq that there is almost no chance of a serious public debate.
It is by no means certain that Gordon Brown would have acted differently on Iraq. Nor is it likely that, as Mr Blair's successor, he will heal all or even most of Labour's internal wounds. On the public-private partnership for the London Tube, he is as isolated in his stubbornness as Mr Blair is on Iraq. He has a passion for "flexible" labour markets. He admires all things American. He is as determined on public sector reform as Mr Blair - he just wants to do it differently. And you can be sure that as soon as he got inside No 10, he would proceed wholeheartedly with top-up fees, suitably repackaged with a few minor amendments.
But at least Mr Brown would start with a clean sheet. He would not need to keep on justifying the Iraq war. The most divisive issue in British public life in a generation could be forgotten as Suez was under Harold Macmillan and the poll tax was under John Major. Mr Brown could put our relations with Europe on a less highly charged footing, free from Mr Blair's baffling mixed metaphors about bridges and hearts. He could refocus and redefine new Labour, without any need for another of Mr Blair's implausible relaunches. There is work to be done and, frankly, Mr Blair is getting in the way. We must hope that, before the end of 2004, after one final rousing speech about how he overthrew the Iraqi tyrant, he will accept the applause of a grateful nation and party and graciously leave the stage.
Justice for Dotty!
What a very odd organisation the RSPCA is. When cows were being slaughtered up and down the country during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, it raised not a murmur. Now it demands capital punishment for Dotty, Princess Anne's bull terrier, which was, as dog lovers tend to put it, over-affectionate in her Christmas greetings to the Queen's corgi Pharos. The corgi, er, passed away as a result. Presumably on the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth, mutt-for-a-mutt principle, the RSPCA wants Dotty put down, without trial or appeal. Worse, it brands her a "rogue dog", creating the risk that President Bush will send forces into Gloucestershire, where Dotty lives. Was there provocation from the corgis? Was Dotty encouraged by her mistress? Justice demands these facts be established before sentence is passed and that, if found guilty, the maximum sentence for Dotty should be life imprisonment in the Tower.