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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
How will it end for Blair?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Only a week since Tony Blair insisted he would not announce a timetable for his departure from Downing Street and he now appears to have done precisely that.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair wants an orderly exit from Downing Street

He has not spoken himself but senior loyalist ministers, including Hilary Armstrong and David Miliband, have now insisted he will be gone within a year.

And the usually well-briefed Sun newspaper has even put a date on it - July 26, with the announcement coming from the prime minister on 31 May, in the wake of next spring's local elections.

Meanwhile nearly 50 MPs have signed a letter saying, in effect, that the assurances should be enough to satisfy those demanding a timetable for his departure and they should now shut up.

In other words, this now looks like an orchestrated campaign to announce a timetable without Tony Blair having to suffer the embarrassment of publicly executing the U-turn himself and, in the process, surrendering what prime ministerial authority he has left.

After all he originally insisted he would serve a full third term, then backed away by saying he would offer his successor "ample time" to bed in. Now even that scenario looks fragile.

But it remains hugely uncertain whether all this will succeed in heading off the demands for Mr Blair to utter the words himself - or even for him to quit immediately.

Pressure to intensify?

There are many MPs, including some who have signed another letter demanding just such an announcement, who will be satisfied with nothing less.

They will see the attempts to damp down the firestorm with an unofficial retirement announcement simply as a sign that Mr Blair is now on the run and may be pushed further.

How about teaming up with the Stones and playing duets with Keith Richards on their next tour?
Peter, Oxford

So it now seems likely that the pressure for some sort of personal statement from Mr Blair himself at the looming party conference in Manchester, if not before, will only intensify.

And the question will remain - just how will the prime minister end his days in Downing Street.

Will it be on a wave of euphoria after a decade in power, with "Blairism" irrevocably embedded into the Labour party and society and voters demanding he stays on, as suggested in a leaked memo from his closest aides.

Or will he be forced out by his own party, in the manner of Margaret Thatcher, in a brutal coup by those who believe he has become a dangerous liability, out of touch with both Labour and the public?

These remain the two scenarios being presented to party members as they head towards what will be a pivotal conference in Manchester in three weeks' time.

David Miliband
Miliband suggested Blair has another year

On the one hand there is that leaked memo, which sets out a typically detailed and tightly-controlled programme to take the prime minister into his retirement.

"As TB enters his final phase he needs to be focusing way beyond the finishing line, not looking at it.

"He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won't even play that last encore," it states.

That is the process the prime minister already appeared to be engaged in before Tuesday's frantic activity, with forward-looking speeches around Britain on social exclusion and other issues planned for the coming weeks.

Then there is the alternative view - the "Thatcher scenario", which Mr Blair and his aides want to avoid at all cost and which all the coded statements and reassurances from senior ministers and others have been focused on.

The great fear is that those who have already delivered one letter to Mr Blair demanding his resignation may represent the tip of the iceberg of frustrated and concerned MPs, even junior ministers, which may yet sink him with some claims of up to 100 ready to do just that.

What this all boils down to is a familiar struggle by a prime minister determined to keep control of his own future

Their action appears to have been provoked by the prime minister's insistence in a Times interview last week that he had no intention of using the Manchester conference to give a more detailed timetable for his departure. There are also motions planned for the conference demanding a timetable for his departure.

None of that is expected to die down as a result of the comments from the likes of David Miliband and Hilary Armstrong and that has led some to wonder, if Mr Blair maintains his silence, whether Chancellor Gordon Brown and his supporters will finally be prompted to move against him.

What this all boils down to is a familiar struggle by a prime minister determined to keep control of his own future and ensure he leaves on a high, while events threaten to tear that control from his hands and overwhelm him.

Those urging him to go soon, however, believe the moment at which he can go while still at the top of his game has long passed and that things can only get worse for him from here on.

Blairite alternative

And, while Downing Street is insisting the leaked memo was not seen by the prime minister or senior officials, it was being seen by as evidence that Mr Blair and his allies are focusing their energy on his exit strategy rather than the job of government.

That will sting, as only last week Mr Blair was telling his party to stop "obsessing" over his future.

There is also the suspicion that one of the reasons the prime minister may want to delay his departure is to ensure there is a credible, Blairite alternative on offer to challenge Mr Brown for the leadership.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party appears to be developing a consistent lead in the opinion polls and there are many in the Labour Party who want to get on with the job of putting Mr Brown into 10 Downing Street to tackle its leader, David Cameron.

It is now hard to see what else Mr Blair can do to stop all the speculation over his future, short of making that personal statement.

And in Westminster, things are looking more fluid and uncertain that at any previous time and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that control is slipping from the prime minister's hands.

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