| Blair: Beginning of the end'
London, May 6: It is a sign of the power struggle at the heart of the government that Tony Blair’s advisers had no idea, until late on Thursday night, that Gordon Brown intended to take to the airwaves yesterday morning.
The Chancellor’s appearance on the Today programme was certainly not on the Downing Street “grid” of events for dealing with the fallout from the local elections.
Brown had not consulted No 10 about the “line to take” on Labour’s routing at the polls. In fact, the Blairites were terrified about what he was going to say.
The Chancellor did not, in the end, stick the knife into the Prime Minister, as some of his allies would have liked him to do. He did, however, distance himself, subtly, from Blair in the wake of the loss of more than 300 Labour council seats.
The local elections were, he said, a “warning shot” to the government. “The renewal of the party must start now.”
There was a clear implication that simply blaming recent headlines, or reshuffling the chairs on the deck, would not be enough. As one of Brown’s allies later put it, more bluntly: “The problem is systemic and it’s not going to be resolved until Tony goes. He’s lost touch with reality.”
Yesterday Blair executed a “night of the long knives”, in which he changed almost all the members of his top table. Although the Prime Minister’s recent reshuffles have been characterised by prevarication and fudge, this time he was brutal, refusing to take “no” for an answer from those, such as Charles Clarke and John Prescott, who were going to be demoted or chopped.
Ministers seen as loyal and competent ' John Reid, Margaret Beckett, Alan Johnson - were promoted. Those deemed not to have performed well ' Ruth Kelly, Hilary Armstrong ' or to have been less than supportive ' Jack Straw, Ian McCartney ' were shunted aside.
Brown was informed, rather than consulted, about the changes. The promotion of his key adviser, Ed Balls, to the job of economic secretary was seen as a consolation prize.
The Blairites claim the Prime Minister is more bullish than ever. “This is not the reshuffle of a man about to leave office,” an aide said.
A cabinet minister, who is close to Blair, insisted that the Prime Minister had not been “knocked off stride” by recent events. “Tony’s got a resilient and calm personality,” he said. “The critical thing is not the reshuffle but the ability to withstand buffeting.”
A No 10 adviser said the signs of a Tory revival showed that Labour must be more “new” than ever. “The idea that this means we should go to the Left is politically illiterate,” he said.
And yet the problems that Blair faced two days ago have not gone away. Dozens of foreign former prisoners are still on the run, National Health Service trusts are still in deficit, the police are still investigating the cash-for-peerages allegations and a back-bench rebellion on the education bill is still looming.
Some MPs thought the scale of the reshuffle indicated desperation in No 10. “If all the members of the cabinet were all so useless what does that say about the man who put them there in the first place'” asked one minister. “Charles Clarke and John Prescott are the lightning conductors.”
Questions about Blair’s own future have not gone away. Last night, it was reported that 50 Labour MPs were ready to sign a letter urging the Prime Minister to announce an “early end date” to his premiership.
Many of these will be the usual suspects, members of the Left-wing Campaign Group who denounced Blair loudly in the media yesterday.
More worryingly for the Prime Minister, moderate backbenchers, who were previously loyal to the leader, now admit, privately, that they have lost confidence in Blair.