Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Monday, 8 May 2006 20:43 UK

Blair moves to calm his MPs

Sketch
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Doorstepping a meeting of Labour's parliamentary party when Tony Blair is speaking is a little like warfare.

House of Commons
Commons corridor was packed with MPs and journalists
There are long periods of boredom punctuated by sudden explosions of mayhem and confusion.

And Monday night in the long, wood panelled corridor outside Commons committee room 14 - the Gladstone Room - was no exception.

Unlike warfare, however, quite how it all turned out in the end is not so easy to tell.

Shortly after 1800 BST, the prime minister marched into the large room overlooking the Thames, followed moments later by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Both comprehensively blanked shouted questions from the media scrum attempting to slow their progress without actually getting mown down or arrested by the long-suffering police officers manning the doors.

John Prescott, with a face more than ever like the Hulk with a headache, had his shoulders squared and his lips tightly pursed as he ploughed his way through the same pack - daring anyone to shout at him.

To our shame - but probably wisely - we remained entirely silent.

Turned away

A good number of Labour MPs and peers had already taken their seats but were then followed by what seemed like legions of colleagues.

Rebel Geraldine Smith said she planned to tell the prime minister what she thought. After her recent media appearances, I think he probably already knew.

Tony Blair
Blair promised an orderly transition

Others muttered they were determined to have their say, but they were swamped by those ready to offer expressions of support for the prime minister.

The room quickly filled to the brim (the first success for the new chief whip Jacqui Smith perhaps - or just a spontaneous show of support?) and a number were turned away.

Indeed demoted Cabinet minister Geoff Hoon was amongst those who couldn't gain entry. How quickly the influence of power wanes.

That little piece of mayhem over and it was the long period of boredom for the journalists outside.

We cracked jokes, speculated wildly, sat sullenly staring at our feet - and spotted the roof was leaking. About the only thing that was.

We heard the occasional flurries of handclapping but no distant gunfire in the sound of raised voices.

Who said what

A few drifted out with comments like "very good speech", "I'm reassured", "sorry I'm not talking to you (at least not in sight of my colleagues)" and "he said his legacy will be a fourth term" .

What? That last one caught me by surprise until my source patiently explained he had meant a fourth term for Labour.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Brown will have time to settle in

And then, an hour and a bit later, the doors opened and out he came. No stopping to chat with the hacks, flanked by his security staff and off down the corridor into the distance. Absolutely no point in pursuit.

Then the unstoppable tsunami of Labour MPs, peers, staff and the rest crashed into the corridor like a scene from last night's "Krakatoa" film.

Another brief period of mayhem and confusion as we tried to find out who said what.

And, just as suddenly, the corridor was drained except for us and the Labour spokesman who told us there had been dissenting voices.

Ample time

But, he stressed, the overwhelming view was that the party was ready to "take on trust" the prime minister's assurances that he would allow "ample" time for his successor to bed in before the next general election.

Here was another new word to play with - what exactly does "ample" mean. Who knows, and the prime minister isn't elaborating - his spokesman said it meant the "appropriate" amount of time.

The upshot of all this, however, is that the prime minister has probably offered enough to damp down the current forest fire.

The hardliners have not put off their demands for a clear timetable.

But the "reasonable end of the market", as Mr Blair has called them, do indeed seem ready to let him live up to his promise for a stable and orderly transfer of power, with ample time for Gordon Brown to establish himself.

They do not want to hear any return to the old talk of the prime minister serving a "full third term". And if this new line can hold, this latest crisis may yet be headed off.

But it will only take one indication that there has been no real change of prime ministerial heart and it will all take off again.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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