The gambler

As he goes above his party and the British electorate, alienates the Chancellor, and tries to fix th

With one bound, he would be free. Tony Blair's gambit, to pre-announce his resignation for five years' time, sets in motion the final phase of his presidency. Finally, after all the cohabitation with Gordon Brown, after all the trimming and self-doubt, he feels beholden to no one. "We've never had this possibility before," one of Blair's associates told me. "The opportunity is there. He can act without the need for alliances or deals. It's a liberating feeling." A man frustrated by the conventions of cabinet government, the Prime Minister is likening his twilight years to the second term of a US president. "He won't have to worry about getting re-elected. We can take more risks. Either it works or it doesn't. If so, he walks," a confidant said.

In his defiance, Blair has sought to rewrite the British constitution - regarding Labour's electoral mandate as personal, and forgetting that he is in Downing Street by dint of being the elected leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. The astonishing circumstances surrounding his announcement on 30 September testify to this new, carefree approach.

Blair has for some time toyed with the idea of setting an advance date for his departure. As has now been confirmed by both sides, in the early summer, Brown talked him out of a six-month deadline. Shortly thereafter, as he decided to renege on his deal with Brown, Blair came up with the idea of a "fixed-term" final term. When he put that in early July to one senior MP and very close loyalist, he was told it was "barmy", that it would weaken his position. Blair confided in that same MP on the eve of his conference speech, but this time he presented it as a fait accompli. He would not be talked out of it. At no point in these conversations, or in several others that Blair had with a discreet group of friends, did he mention his heart problems.

At about 6pm on the evening of the announcement, Downing Street put in calls to the cabinet. Blair phoned a few ministers himself. Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, called others; his political aides Sally Morgan and Pat McFadden mopped up the rest. They were told in the following order: that he intended to stay a "full" five years but no further, and that he was going into hospital the following day for an operation.

The only member of cabinet who was not informed was the Chancellor. As his plane touched down in Washington, DC an hour late, at around 8pm London time, the first Brown knew about it was when his small team was called first by journalists and then by his private office in the Treasury. The initial response was bewilderment. They had not seen this coming. Still, given the brinkmanship of the previous days, they were not particularly surprised.

Brown was not the only person to feel aggrieved. Several ministers more sympathetic to Blair did not appreciate the way they had been excluded from this important decision - one that had a bearing as much on the collective as on the individual. One minister had held a long planning meeting with Blair only hours before, but was not given a hint of what was to come. Those granted privileged access to the information included Alan Milburn, recently appointed chief of Labour's election strategy, and Peter Mandelson, the incoming EU trade commissioner.

As Brown held meetings over the next few days with the likes of Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, James Wolfensohn of the World Bank and John Snow, the US treasury secretary, his team monitored the reaction to Blair's move. Nervousness turned to relief as it soon became apparent that the announcement had backfired. Far from shoring up Blair's position, it served to emphasise its fragility.

The mood improved further on the final leg of Brown's trip, in Ottawa, which focused on economic aspects of the Commission for Africa. In policy terms, the deterioration in relations is deeply depressing. The Africa initiative has been one of those rare points in which the best of Blair and Brown combined to engineer radical change, but now the men cannot bring themselves to work together, let alone travel together. This particular project is still being pursued jointly, but in parallel.

So what exactly was Blair's motive? The benign explanation is that he knew further revelations about his troublesome heart would have to be offset by a robust statement of his intentions. If he were to say that he would lead the party into the next general election, he would have to make clear that he was planning to stay in office for some time after that. It would inevitably heap further frustration on Brown, but that was a by-product rather than an intention. The problem with this theory is that nothing was done earlier to square the Chancellor. Indeed, the choreography of the announcement appeared designed to antagonise, just as with the machinations surrounding the appointment of Milburn three weeks previously.

Blair's people are split on how to deal with their recalcitrant Chancellor. Some of the ultras want to exploit the post-election period further to isolate him, and possibly to force him to resign by offering him a job that he could not possibly accept, such as Foreign Secretary. When I asked whether Blair would really have the gumption to do that, one official remarked: "Who would have thought Derry Irvine would have gone? He had become a fixed point in the political firmament, but it shows all cabinet members have a finite span." Either way, the idea is to stretch out the succession process as long as possible to allow prospective alternatives to come through. "The question is not where the candidates are now, but where they will be in three to four years' time. The kind of leader we would be looking for then might be different," said one Blairite adviser.

Others argue that Blair is perfectly within his rights to remain at the helm well into a third term, but that they would have no objection to Brown taking over at a later date. "Gordon is a racing certainty, you can see that from the bookies' odds," said one minister, "but he still needs to show that he is the only game in town."

That is where John Prescott comes in. Brown spoke several times with the Deputy Prime Minister over the weekend. Prescott's warning on BBC1's Breakfast With Frost on 3 October, that anyone who concentrated on personal gain rather than electoral victory would incur "the full wrath of the party", was interpreted as the word of an impartial referee. That is not quite the case. Brown is streets ahead of the rest in terms of profile and organisation (he already has the trade unions as good as sewn up, plus a guaranteed chunk of MPs and constituency parties). Prescott was in effect telling the lesser challengers to steer clear.

Nobody now disputes the chronology of events dating back to November 2003: that Prescott brokered a deal between the warring factions, only for it to be torn up by Blair in July in a sudden rush of courage. Having so ostentatiously been cut out of the loop, Brown now has a rare opportunity to campaign in the open. Out on the road, he will be spreading Labour's message - which, as he constantly portrays, is his message. He will leave Milburn to co-ordinate the general election campaign, returning to London only to front press conferences specifically on the economy. The peace offering, relayed through newspapers rather than directly, that Brown should "front" all the press conferences, produced no little mirth at the Treasury. The upsurge in fortunes for the Liberal Democrats makes this a more complex campaign to run, and Milburn will have his credentials severely tested.

The paradox of Blair's go-it-alone strategy is that both opposition parties are quite happy to focus on his presidential pretensions. Both the Tory leader, Michael Howard, and Charles Kennedy of the Lib Dems used the conference season to hone their attacks specifically on the PM, his personality and his honesty. In his Bournemouth speech on 6 October, Howard developed the charge he made during his interview for last week's NS (that Blair lied in the run-up to war in Iraq) by implying that the Prime Minister could no longer be trusted on national security.

Even though this was the first Conservative conference since 1991 in which leadership had not been an issue, Howard did little to suggest that he has the wherewithal to break out much beyond his party's core vote. Tory strategists privately concede that they have given up on much of metropolitan Britain, ceding the challenge there to Kennedy's lot. But if anti-Blair tactical voting takes hold with the Tories in the shires and the suburbs and the Lib Dems in the cities, Labour will face a tough challenge to provide a healthy working majority for whoever is in charge.

One line in the PM's Brighton address on 28 September, which was not picked up at the time, now assumes particular resonance. The future, he said, "requires restless courage". In the first four weeks of the new political season, he has sidelined his Chancellor - his "friend of 20 years" - from the election and has put on hold the arrangement for the succession. Blair is going for broke, knowing that with each day, his power is seeping from him.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The gambler