'The summer before the dark'
The spectre of the war on Iraq continues to haunt Tony Blair, reports Alistair Alexander from London
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Anti-war protestors in Brighton, England, where the Labour Party is holding its annual conference, include Zeinab Hamish Taresh who lost both her legs in a British bombing raid in Basra, Iraq
Following a carefree summer spent relaxing at the palatial villa of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair must have found his recent return to British politics distinctly less agreeable.
After a cabinet reshuffle that further antagonised his chancellor and rival Gordon Brown, a strained party conference and the dark shadow of Iraq, Blair was forced to announce his own retirement after another heart scare, albeit in five years time.
In a hugely difficult year in which he only just held on to his job, it was hardly surprising that Blair would seek to tighten his grip on government upon his return from his long summer break. His initial plan was to re-appoint one of his closest political allies, Peter Mandelson, to the cabinet. But Mandelson is so reviled within the Labour Party that a number of Blair's most senior ministers forced the Prime Minster to back down. Instead, Mandelson was offered the consolation prize of a job as EU commissioner, ensuring that he will be out of the Westminster picture for the foreseeable future.
Having failed to bring back Mandelson, Blair's alternative was hardly less inflammatory. He instead turned to Alan Milburn, another Blairite and arch-antagonist of Gordon Brown, who resigned as Health secretary a year earlier apparently to spend more time with his family. To add insult to injury, Blair put Milburn in charge of Labour's re- election's campaign, a job Brown held in the last two elections.
Brown's ambitions to replace Tony Blair as prime Minister have been exhaustively documented in the British media. But his huge power base within the Labour Party and his formidable reputation as one of the finest chancellors Britain has ever had has made him virtually impossible for Blair to dislodge.
In the absence of any serious opposition from the Conservative Party, the simmering tension between the two men has been the dominant schism in British politics since Labour came to power in 1997. Periodically, the tensions erupt to the surface as the two men's coteries of advisors brief the press furiously to gain the upper hand. Inevitably, Milburn's appointment provoked a particularly bitter exchange -- even by their standards - but, whereas normally the result of these outbursts is a sour stalemate, this time it was clear that Brown had been out-manoeuvred.
This row was hardly the ideal preparation for Labour's annual party conference held last week.
Although the Labour conference has become a largely stage-managed event under Blair, it is also the forum in which the differences between Blair and Brown are thrown into sharp relief.
While Blair is rarely at ease with the unreconstructed socialism of much of the Labour membership, Brown speaks their language fluently. Brown's speech on the first day of the conference was keenly watched by commentators who pore over line for coded attacks on Blair. But this year there were slim pickings for them to chose from. Brown might have roused the party faithful with a passionate defence of socialism, he drove home the message of unity and the detail was New Labour to the core.
With Brown reassuringly on-message, Blair still had some explaining to do. His party's membership - not to mention the electorate - is still seething about Iraq. After weeks of pressure from Labour MPs to apologise for Iraq, the days preceding the conference were dominated by the kidnapping of a Briton by Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kenneth Bigley is al- Zarqawi's first British hostage and his prolonged incarceration has plunged the British Government into a state of paralysis.
No surprise then that Blair's speech later in the week was a somewhat low-key affair. While in previous years he has hectored Labour Party members for their unreconstructed socialist ways, this year he was more conciliatory.
With the next election penciled in for May next year, Blair was keen to shift the agenda back to domestic issues. But while he outlined some vaguely interesting proposals -- cheap housing for young families, an increase in the minimum wage and improved parental leave -- it hardly added up to a vision that would inspire his party faithful.
On Iraq, he almost apologised, but not quite. "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong," he said, "but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam."
For Blair that was an apology. But for others it was more rhetorical trickery, and hardly the kind of statement to silence his critics.
Delegates at the conference had tabled a debate calling for the withdrawal of British troops, a call which is sure to grow louder over coming months. But the party leadership hatched a deal with the unions to ensure the debate went the government's way.
So the mood of the conference at the end was as muted as at the start, Labour party members are a loyal bunch and, although profoundly disenchanted with Blair, most would not welcome a change of leadership this close to an election.
But no sooner had the conference ended than Blair sprang another surprise. In TV interviews he announced he would serve a full third term and step down then. The move was clearly tactical. He announced at the same time that he was having surgery on a minor heart condition the next day. And news was also emerging that the Blairs had purchased a new house in London. Both developments are inconsequential, but after months of feverish speculation over Blair's future, he knew both stories would be taken as cast-iron proof that his days were numbered.
By announcing his intention to serve another full term, Blair hoped to kill the speculation before it started. The problem is that in Britain, where politicians do not serve fixed terms, Prime Ministers who openly speculate about the length of their stay in Downing Street, tend to bring it to an end sooner than they had imagined. And then there is his neighbour, the Chancellor Gordon Brown. Having waited seven years for the top job, he is unlikely to be happy about waiting for five years more.
Unfortunately then, in his bold move to crush any continuing doubts about his future, Mr Blair has more or less guaranteed that those doubts will surround him for as long as he remains Prime Minister. In effect, Mr Blair has announced a five-year leadership contest that may yet be accelerated.