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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 11:17 GMT
The potent brew threatening Blair
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair has long been preparing himself for the recriminations that were bound to follow his reliance on opposition Tory MPs to win the vote on his key education reforms.

Tony Blair
Blair faces double trouble

What he apparently did not see coming was the furore over the "cash for Peerages" affair which, in the shape of Labour treasurer Jack Dromey, has crashed out of the undergrowth to savage him.

Both issues are serious and potentially highly damaging for the UK prime minister.

The first because it suggests he has lost authority over his party but is quite happy to rely on Tory support to keep his "legacy" reform programme on life support.

The second, because the allegations about secret loans linked to peerages and hidden from the party treasurer - rejected outright as untrue by Home Secretary Charles Clarke - recall the devastating sleaze allegations which helped sink the Tories.

And, it is worth remembering, it was Labour spin doctors who first attached the word sleaze to John Major's administration to such effect.

It has already seen Mr Dromey's wife, Harriet Harman, giving up her ministerial responsibility overseeing electoral and House of Lords reform to avoid any conflict of interest while a party investigation is underway into the peerages row.

Wider fear

But these two rows are also linked by one single thread which has ensured the brew is potentially more poisonous than its individual ingredients - that is the prime minister's apparent detachment from the Labour party.

Jack Dromey
Dromey is angry over loans

His critics go so far as to claim they show the Labour leader treats his party with contempt and is, in effect, running a party within a party from Downing Street.

The left-wing Campaign Group has even suggested Mr Blair has now, in effect, resigned as leader of the Labour Party. That's no surprise coming from that quarter but, on this occasion, it seems to echo a wider fear amongst party members and backbench MPs.

On the education reforms, Mr Blair's pre-prepared defence is that the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs backed his reforms and, in any case, they are the right thing for the country.

Lasting legacy

But it must be deeply uncomfortable, at the very least, for the prime minister, nearing the end of his premiership and seeking a lasting legacy, to be facing claims he has lost the confidence of, and authority over his party and will only get that legacy thanks to the Tories.

And, if the sleaze allegations stick - as they have a tendency to do, whatever the final outcome of any investigations and explanations - he will also face the prospect of finding himself tainted in the same way Mr Major was in his administration's dying days.

All that said, however, the fact is Tony Blair remains in a strong position despite the demands from many on his own benches for him to go sooner rather than later.

Without a big defeat on a major policy - and it is now hard to think what could be more important for the prime minister than his education reforms - it is difficult to see how Tony Blair can be forced from office.

Despite all the rumblings, and Gordon Brown's desire to take over, there is no evidence of a looming palace coup of the sort that finally did for Margaret Thatcher.

So the timing of his eventual departure, which remains the biggest political issue of the day - appears to rest firmly in his own hands.

He has said his preferred exit would be shortly before the next election - due by May 2010 - but as these recent events have shown, things can move suddenly and unexpectedly.


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