How Blair can spare himself humiliation and go with dignity

It's the manner of the transition that counts

It should not have come to this. After nearly ten years in power and three consecutive election victories, Labour's longest-serving prime minister deserves a better exit from the stage. But the manner of Tony Blair's last gasps has become demeaning for him and for a party he has done so much to revive.

Ministers, MPs and activists are looking on in horrified fascination as events unfold. Blair's offer - conveyed in the usual way, via the Sun newspaper - of a departure date of 31 May 2007, followed by an eight-week contest - has rightly been rejected by Gordon Brown's camp. It is too soon for the Prime Minister to do anything meaningful and too far away for calm to be restored.

The resentment has grown on both sides. Brown's people wonder how many more tricks their enemies have up their sleeves. After all, Blair has form in making non-promises and then not keeping them. They want a public timetable, now. Blair's people ask how much more can be expected of a man who broke new ground in announcing in 2004 that he would stand down. They believed his recent interview in the Times newspaper would be a fair and final word. They cannot understand why the party has become so emotional, impatient and ungrateful.

Downing Street's sorrow is based on a wilful misreading of recent history and on two fallacies - that there never was an agreed succession with Brown, and that the 2005 election victory reflected Blair's abiding strengths.

Whether or not one or more deals were made at any point between 1994 and the present, there was always an understanding that the Chancellor would take over, and that he would have taken over long ago. Indeed, not only has Brown not moved against Blair - and we have consistently argued that he should have done - but he was the one who last year propped up a Labour leader struggling even against Michael Howard's woeful Conservatives. The bald truth, which Blair and his clique cannot bring themselves to accept, is that Iraq finished him. He should have gone in 2003 or 2004.

That is in the past. What matters now, as David Miliband points out in his revealing interview (page 12), is not so much the timing as the manner of the transition. Miliband, whose time in the top job may yet come, served notice on his older cabinet colleagues that they should abandon their hopes of stopping Brown. Instead they should embrace the new leader and help ensure a fresh start on the environment, international affairs, civil liberties, constitutional reform and political probity.

A debate must begin. This should not, as the Blairite ultras would like, be a ruse and a way to tie Brown's hands. But there can be no better means of reviving a political party that has been a decade in power and during a leadership transition than through candid discussion of future policy. Brown has long argued that he cannot set out his vision until he knows the exact timing and mechanics of the change. All this should happen.

Anyone who is confident about his leadership qualities, as Brown must surely be, would welcome the challenge. The NS believes a proper contest should take place. We will support the candidate with the most progressive, but also pragmatic, agenda for the future. Thus far we see no alternative to Brown, but he must demonstrate in a number of areas that he is truly committed to a new kind of politics.

The polls show that, whoever takes over, it will be a hard slog. Spending in public services is about to be squeezed; tax levels are rising; terrorist threats have darkened the mood. Blair's zealous approach to foreign affairs has contributed to the débâcles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. David Cameron's Conservatives are a serious threat. Many of their policy announcements should not be dismissed lightly. The electorate is no longer tribal. And yet, there is still much hope for Labour and left-wing politics, but only if this leadership crisis leads to positive change.

As for Blair, he has one last tool at his disposal: the surprise of the resignation announcement. Let him use it quickly. And then, instead of guest spots on Blue Peter and Songs of Praise, he can rebuild his legacy by following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, and other former leaders and entrepreneurs, by doing good works around the world.

Darfur: lest we forget (again)

How bad can things get in Darfur? We are about to find out. This dusty region the size of France has a population of seven million, a third of whom have been driven from their homes. Most live lives of shocking hardship in vast camps, dependent on food aid and preyed on - robbed, raped and murdered - by armed gangs. A "peace deal" in May turned out to be no more than a realignment of factions, drawing terrifying new lines of conflict through the camps.

The Khartoum government and its allies, meanwhile, launched an offensive against their enemies, targeting civilians with artillery and aircraft. Militias are systematically attacking aid providers, to the point where more than half a million people can no longer be supplied with food and medicine. The African Union force, which has done a great deal of good, will leave at the end of the month, thrown out by the government. The UN Security Council has voted to send 17,000 peacekeepers in their place but the Sudanese government rejects this as a challenge to its sovereignty. Even if the UN can find a way in, it will take months. Little wonder that the UN's relief co-ordinator predicts a "man-made catastrophe on an unprecedented scale".

It seems the only immediate weapon at our disposal is outrage - a call on Sudan for restraint and on western governments and the UN to act, urgently. It may not sound like much, but it has made a difference before. Let us not forget Darfur again.