NS Interview - Stephen Byers

The PM's confidant says he will go voluntarily, but will never, ever name the day

As he battles from his bunker to fend off the foe, Tony Blair has a diminishing coterie to turn to. One who has stood by him through thick and thin is Stephen Byers. The North Tyneside MP and former cabinet minister was talking to the Prime Minister all through this past frantic weekend after the local elections, with talk of coups and civil wars growing.

Byers argues that, far from giving ammunition to those seeking an early exit by Blair, the poor electoral performance reinforces the need for the PM to stay. "We didn't lose votes to the Lib Dems. It was people going to the Tories - particularly in London. That is significant in terms of a general election because I think, of the 80 most marginal seats, 75 have the Conservatives in second place. So we are back in classic two-party politics. If we look at those areas where we did less well, [it's clear] it was that coalition of people who had come to new Labour [in 1997 and 2001] who have begun to move away," he says. "Tony Blair is in the best position to re-engage with that part of the electorate."

Byers admits that over the past year the government has lost its way. "The loss of support isn't down just to Patricia Hewitt, Charles Clarke and John Prescott; there were difficulties even before the events of the past two weeks. One of the criticisms I've made of the government is that we haven't had those issues which have allowed Labour MPs to go to their constituencies with a spring in their step, feeling comfortable waving the Labour flag."

He cites the minimum wage in the first term. "In the third term there haven't been that many things that make Labour MPs and party members feel, 'Yes, this is what Labour governments are all about.'" He suggests more emphasis on tackling child poverty and a new deal for carers.

On this need for renewal, he says, Blair and Brown are united. But what of the terms and date of the handover? Byers insists that the protagonists have discussed the specifics, a point not confirmed by the Brownites. "In the end this is always going to have to be an understanding between the two of them. Because it is so personal, at the end it has got to be Tony Blair coming to terms with the fact that his days as Prime Minister are numbered, and doing it in a way that will ensure that his likely successor, who is Gordon, thinks that he is going to be given a good opportunity to show what he'll be like."

Blair told the parliamentary party that he would give his successor "ample time" to prepare. The press took this to mean that he will go in 2007. People around Brown insist that no such categorical assurance has been given. They fear Blair will be able to wriggle out next year, frustrating Brown yet again. I make this point to Byers, recalling that the relationship has been riddled with many such "misunderstandings" over the succession. He says that any fresh agreement between the two will not be revealed, even to their inner sanctums, for fear of a leak. "Given the nature of their relationship, I think there's a whole range of issues that just the two of them and not very many other people know about."

Byers says he has never been told of any previous agreement between Blair and Brown. I suggest that, in order to avoid doubt, a deal should be written on a piece of paper and perhaps kept under lock and key. Whatever the nature of the agreement, Byers says intriguingly, "it's got to be one that they are both content with". And does it have to be witnessed? "I don't know. That's for the two of them to decide." He says: "I know what it can't be, which is a sort of public statement with Tony naming a date, because that would have two very damaging consequences. First, there would be paralysis at the heart of government. Second, it would be a gift to David Cameron and the Tories knowing that, on a particular day, Blair will depart."

Just to be clear: Blair won't set a date in advance, whatever the pressure? "That's it. He's not going to say any more." If that is the case, does Byers understand those who doubt Blair's bona fides? "Given that he was the one who said he was going to go, and that we now know that he will go and give time to his successor to demonstrate what they will be like, I have no doubt he will go voluntarily."

What of the legacy? What does Blair feel he still needs to do? What about expunging the disaster that is Iraq? "It's not helpful for him to think of his departure in terms of establishing a legacy before he goes. If he takes that view it will cause problems for him, because it would look as if he is putting his own interests before those of party and government."

So how then would the PM determine that his job is done? "He wants to make sure that the reforms in public services are complete, that we get a pensions policy that will offer security and dignity to people, and that we have an energy policy that is sustainable between supply and demand. He needs to make sure that the new Labour settlement remains at the heart of what we do, and that it can't just be a flick of the switch and it's back to the bad old days." I suggest that no conceivable successor poses such a threat, and this elicits a strange riposte: "The person that gets it now may well be new Labour, but in 20 to 30 years' time who knows? That's what we mean when we talk about embedding."

Would the new Labour legacy be safe under Brown? Byers pauses and chooses his words: "He'll do it differently, but it will be safe."