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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Will he stay or will he go?
By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

It seems that wherever the prime minister goes these days, there are reporters asking him how long he plans to keep his job.

This is a man with a thumping great parliamentary majority, a strong record of economic growth, low inflation, low interest rates and the lowest number of unemployed for years.

So why is his situation so precarious? The single-word answer is of course Iraq.

No one has ever doubted Tony Blair's conviction when it comes to his belief in the rightness of the war.

Tony Blair
Is Tony Blair facing his toughest test as prime minister?
Indeed no one disputes the fact that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein is a good thing.

The problem is that having won the war, the coalition is rapidly losing the peace.

People may have thought the abiding image from the conflict would be the toppling of Saddam's statue by the Iraqi people.

But that's been replaced by the fag-in-mouth pictures of Lynndie England hauling a naked Iraqi prisoner around on a leash.

She may be American, but when there's scarcely a cigarette paper's distance between the positions of Tony Blair and George Bush, these things inevitably rub off.

Froth and Bubble

Tony Blair has made it clear that he would step down if he believed he'd become an electoral liability to his party.

He plainly does not believe that has yet happened as was evident when he was questioned on Friday.

He said he couldn't remember how many "worst weeks" he'd had since going into politics.

But Tony Blair is a man with an acute political antenna and he will have picked up the distress calls emanating from his parliamentary party.

The long faces at prime minister's question time this week were testimony to a deeply gloomy atmosphere among the rank and file.

So what do they want?

Cook's voice

Many Labour MPs have felt uneasy for some time about Tony Blair's closeness to George Bush.

Now they're beginning to call openly for Mr Blair to place some real distance between London and Washington.

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary and former leader of the House of Commons who resigned over the war, has added his voice to the clamour.

In an interview to be broadcast on Sunday, Mr. Cook said: "I think many people in the country, certainly in the Labour Party, are increasingly concerned [about] the difficulty Tony Blair appears to have in saying anything different from George Bush or suggesting that George Bush is doing anything that is wrong."

One of the most perplexing things for Labour MPs is how Tony Blair can work so closely with one of the most right-wing US presidents in recent times.

Difficulties converging?

But then he sits in a long tradition of British prime ministers for whom relations with Washington are paramount.

Unfortunately for Tony Blair his difficulties are converging at precisely the wrong time.

At this point in his second term he should have been crowing about the fruits of large-scale public investment in both the national health service and Britain's schools.

Instead with probably only a year to the next general election and less than a month to local and European elections, the prime minister looks like a man for whom events are no longer under his control.

So Labour backbenchers will closely scrutinise next month's polls in a frantic attempt to extrapolate their own fates.

MPs, after all, have mortgages to pay too.

Executioners

If enough of them believe the tea leaves are telling them a gloomy tale, then the mutterings about the leadership will grow louder and the manoeuvrings will begin.

But several factors may just stay the hand of the would-be executioners.

Firstly, Tony Blair has delivered power to a party kept in the wilderness for 18 years.

Even if parts of the party can't stand the man, they know his electoral appeal and by no means has he lost all that yet.

Secondly, things change. In 1986, Margaret Thatcher looked very rocky, facing deep cabinet divisions over issues like the Westland helicopter affair.

Enough is Enough

Yet one year later, she won herself another three figure majority.

Thirdly, no one likes an assassin and any attempt to wrestle the leadership from Mr Blair before he was willing to relinquish it would do significant damage to party morale and prospects.

On Friday while out and about in the north east, Mr Blair likened himself to a premiere league manager.

It's not a happy comparison, given that at the moment, his team is shipping goals and sliding fast down the table.

But the season's not yet over and a few home wins would soon silence calls for the manager's sacking.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Mark Mardell
"Many Labour MPs are dismayed at the situation in Iraq"



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