Politics - John Kampfner considers a Labour conspiracy theory

The next few months threaten to resemble the dying years of John Major. The lesson is that authority

So much for favours: three times in the past two years the Chancellor has bailed out the Prime Minister. Each time, on the decision to go to war, over the vote on tuition fees, and in the general election campaign, the thanks have been somewhat short of effusive.

Two people saved Tony Blair at the hustings - Gordon Brown and Michael Howard. The Conservative leader has drawn the appropriate conclusion, setting out a careful timetable for handing over and initiating what might be an important phase of reflection that the Tories have so far shirked. Brown did not set conditions for his co-operation during the election campaign. He worked from the assumption that Blair would enter into some form of cohabitation after 5 May, leading to a smooth and relatively quick succession.

He realised on the morning before polling day, however, that something was afoot. As they chit-chatted during their last couple of joint appearances, Blair suddenly went coy. Brown immediately started to worry. At Labour's victory party, Blair made a brief appearance and thanked those assembled, including Brown only in passing, sandwiched between John Prescott and Alan Milburn. Then during the reshuffle saga a few hours later, the consultations with the Chancellor were cursory.

Behavioural patterns, it seems, do not change. Brown hoped against hope that Blair would respond differently this time.

Blair still managed to convince himself and a couple of people around him that he had received a ringing endorsement from the electorate. He has also taken to suggesting that Brown has not kept to his side of the "bargain", the same line he used to justify his decision to renege on his promise to step down last summer.

With a landslide as a buffer, such altercations could be dismissed during the first two terms of office as little more than power play between rivals. The problem now is deeper. The biggest concern of many MPs is the viability of the Labour Party. Brown's main motive in salvaging the campaign was the knowledge that an even smaller majority would have made his inheritance all the more precarious.

The next few months threaten to resemble the dying years of John Major. The lessons then were that divisions open far more easily than they are healed; disunity (as opposed to healthy open discussion) is disdained by voters; and authority, once lost, is seldom regained. Throw into the mix the possible - one should put it no more strongly than that - rejuvenation of the Conservatives, the wafer-thin majorities of dozens of Labour MPs, and boundary changes that will lop off some if not all of the indefensible advantage Labour enjoyed this month, and the consequences of one or two more years of the status quo become clear.

The hiatus after this "plague on all your houses" election need not be wasted. At a meeting of the pressure group Compass a few days ago, senior figures representing various strands of the party talked of a change in leadership as being a prerequisite, but not a solution in itself. They chewed over the definition of progressive politics. They expressed fears about the haemorrhaging of members and goodwill in the constituencies. They talked about the relationship with the Liberal Democrats and pondered the extent to which their claim to be the radical alternative rang true. They talked about the dilemma of reconciling the needs of floating and core voters, including those elements of working-class support that defected to the BNP or the Tories on the immigration issue.

As these MPs and activists were talking about a new way of conducting government, Blair was finishing off his ministerial appointments by conjuring up jobs for Andrew Adonis, long-time Downing Street Policy Unit wonk, and for the pharmaceuticals multimillionaire and Labour Party benefactor Lord Drayson. Listening and learning obviously mean different things to different people. Adonis's intellect in education is not in doubt, nor is his influence (identified early on in the NS by Francis Beckett), but the message Blair was sending was one of total defiance.

This gives rise to the following conspiracy theory. How far will Blair go to emulate his political role model, Margaret Thatcher? Has he decided to stay until May 2007 to mark his decade in office, a landmark that he has concluded would have been the perfect cut-off point for her? Has he decided that his successor needs a good dose of back-seat driving and second-guessing on the airwaves? Will he do what she did, and undermine his party into ideological and organisational meltdown?

Consider the more sanguine alternative. Perhaps Blair is more determined than his critics might think to lay the ground for a long-term hegemony of the centre left, of making good his promise of a "progressive century". For that to happen requires a different kind of leading, followed by a different kind of leader. There is little sign of either yet.