Blair's departure should be speedy

Election: the night

Prescott and other Labour veterans will now plan the move to a Brown leadershi

The Blair era is drawing to a close. The personal rejection of the Prime Minister took many forms. The Labour vote splintered, with both the other parties being the beneficiaries. Even those candidates who opposed the war were punished.

The opinion pollsters, with their crude methodologies and national headline figures, once again failed to interpret the public mood. That mood from the start of the campaign, and throughout the campaign, was sullen and angry - in particular towards Tony Blair. His authority was undermined as soon as Labour candidates decided to ignore him in their personal literature. His tenure in office is now shaky. His departure should be speedy.

Compare and contrast the broad beam on the face of Gordon Brown and the grimace that was Blair's as he faced the cameras at his Sedgefield count. It is now hard to conceive of a meaningful role for him in a third Labour term. There is not a single piece of major legislation that he could possibly ram past an unwilling Labour Party, as has been his wont in his first eight years. Having initially tried to sideline Brown, Blair became dependent on him. Only towards the end of this most dispiriting of campaigns did the Prime Minister, I am told, understand the extent to which he had become a liability. This victory is in spite of him, not because of him.

Some of the detail is grim: a majority roughly halved; another low turnout; and, most damaging for our democracy, the smallest share of the popular vote for any victorious party, demonstrating the desperate need to reform the electoral system. And yet this is still - lest anyone forget - a third successive Labour government. And that, cliche or not, is a historic achievement for which Blair, pre-war Blair, deserves accolades.

Labour has two options. It can retreat into its shell, fearful of a population that has fallen for the base Tory rhetoric on asylum and immigration. It can perform timidly, fearful of an economic slowdown that is the stock prediction of the experts. Or it can show a courage that has so often been sorely lacking.

The outcome leaves considerable scope for the broad centre left and those who espouse liberal values to dominate politics, at least for the next few years. The Conservative advances in London and the south-east, areas of disproportionate wealth, were not matched elsewhere. Their share of the vote did not increase from their disaster of 2001. Even at a time like this, amid all the disaffection towards the Prime Minister, the Tories could not muster significantly more seats than Michael Foot did in 1983. Michael Howard will have done enough to survive as leader, keeping the reformers in his party at bay for another few years. The Lib Dems performed much better when challenging Labour than the Tories. This suggests that the party is now perceived in large swathes of the country as the left-wing alternative to Labour. That presents for them both a problem and an opportunity.

The electorate - or at least the part that is remotely engaged in the process - seems to have got exactly what it wanted: a more accountable Labour government. They ignored Blair's empty threats about letting Howard in by the back door, and demonstrated a new level of sophistication in tactical voting.

The new politics that Blair promised back in the heady days of 1997, the constitutional reforms, the changes in the way politics is conducted, can - must - belatedly be constructed. Compromises will have to be made. Difficult issues such as immigration, which the left has so often shirked, can no longer be ignored. But still the progressive forces in politics know that this might be their final chance. Boundary changes will remove some of the constituency imbalances that worked significantly in Labour's favour. Many of those who held on to their seats will be defending wafer-thin majorities. At least they now have no excuse but to juxtapose what Labour offers with a Conservative agenda that will in time gain in confidence. David Blunkett called it correctly when he declared that "normal politics has returned".

The composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party will be more multifarious than it has been hitherto, particularly in the first term. The rebels of the past four years may now, on many issues, be reintegrated into the mainstream. Although they have not made the breakthrough they might have hoped for, the Lib Dems will in a tighter House of Commons play a more pivotal role in curbing the authoritarian excesses of the Labour hierarchy. Identity cards will be a struggle. Further anti-terrorist legislation will be even more of a struggle. As for more concessions to the gambling industry, they will surely be shelved. There can be no more foundation hospital or tuition fees macho politics, no more playing fast and loose with the truth.

Brown's rebuke to Blair - "we will listen and we will learn" - was barely disguised. He has already made clear that as Prime Minister he would not commit British forces to military action without providing far more information to the country and to MPs. He will have seen that those MPs who opposed the war tended to fare less badly than those who supported it, although not all the Iraq war rebels were protected from the swing away from Labour. A large proportion of the first-time Labour candidates distanced themselves from the war.

The most poignant intervention during a night of changing emotion came not from George Galloway after his victory over Oona King, but from Reg Keys. The independent candidate whose son was killed in Iraq expressed his hope that one day Blair might say sorry and might one day visit the injured in hospital. His rebuke was made the more powerful by his restraint. Standing behind were Tony and Cherie, their each and every genuflexion in response demonstrating the gulf in moral stature. Many around Blair, loyalists to a fault, simply do not understand why he did not seek some form of reconciliation or proper explanation about the deceits and errors on the road to war. It would have gone some way, perhaps only a small way, to recovering his position. He had enough pre-war credit in the bank to do it. He chose instead to fall back on his tired excuses of ends justifying means.

It will be against Blair's nature to go quickly. Brown will not need to push too hard. On polling day he did not demand of Blair a discussion on the make-up of the cabinet. He did not need to. The most urgent task for Brown is not to force a power struggle that is no longer necessary, but to pave the way for his succession. Over the next few days, the veterans of the cabinet - John Prescott, Jack Straw, Blunkett, Margaret Beckett and others - will have to decide the timing of Blair's departure.

They will be discussing their plans in the coming days. It will be for them to persuade Blair to do what he has to do to give Labour fresh impetus. It will be for all of them, in a collective display of leadership that was alien to the Blair project at its peak, to determine the strategic direction of the third term. Much of the policy substance has already been set out by the five-year plans for the public services. The tone and the priorities of the next legislative programme remain to be determined.

The transition is already under way. The Chancellor's dominance is unarguable. The only question that remains unanswered is when Blair will accept the inevitable and go. If he helps the process and does not stand in the way, he will be carrying out one final service to a party for which he was such an asset for so long.