The good, the bad and the frustrating

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor It was the final full year of Westminster’s long wait for the prime minister to quit and be replaced. It was painful for Mr Blair, says political editor Chris Fisher, deeply frustrating for Gordon Brown and good (but not very) for David Cameron.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

This year has brought more than a little change in Britain's domestic politics. When it began, Charles Clarke was home secretary, Charles Kennedy was the Liberal Democrat leader, Ruth Kelly was education secretary and David Cameron was still generally assumed to be to the right of Tony Blair.

It also brought a more specific notice to quit from the prime minister. By this time next year he will have departed from No 10; indeed he will probably have been gone by half-a-year or more. But he has managed to hold on to his office through 2006, and is set to record a decade in Britain's top political job.

So it has been a year - another one - of waiting for Gordo. And the chancellor of the exchequer has found it very frustrating indeed. In September - with the Labour conference approaching, and Mr Blair still being very vague about his exit timetable - it seemed that his patience had finally snapped and that he was going for the jugular. Mr Blair was hit by a wave of resignations. Defence minister Tom Watson and half-a-dozen ministerial aides or PPSs quit, and their message to Mr Blair was that he should resign and do so with immediate effect.

The rebels were known supporters of the chancellor.

A very British coup appeared to be taking place, and for a while it looked as if Mr Blair could be forced out of office very quickly. But Mr Brown misjudged and mishandled the situation, and not for the first time in terms of his desire to replace Mr Blair, proved counter-productive to his own cause. He came under fire - most explicitly from Mr Clarke - and Mr Blair was left to carry on. A sort of peace was established on the basis of his declaration that he would be gone within the year.

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What does the prime minister achieve by having the extra months? He has avoided the ignominy that Margaret Thatcher suffered in 1990 when she was dramatically driven out of No 10. But can he do much before next summer to secure his legacy better? It's hard to see how. The legislative programme set out in the last Queen's Speech was unimpressive. And notwithstanding the moves being made in Washington and London to amend policy on Iraq, it is not obvious that the picture there will be looking any better in six or seven months' time than it is now. It seems therefore to be essentially a matter of hanging on to get his 10-year gold watch.

Having dominated the Westminster landscape for much of his premiership, he is now reduced - like President Bush - to a status akin to a lame duck, and there can be little joy in it for him as he contemplates what there was and what might have been.

That perception is strengthened by the inquiries into the 'loans for honours' allegations which have resulted in his becoming the Britain's first serving prime minister to be questioned by the police as part of a criminal investigation. He was not spoken to under caution (as a suspect), and the signs are that he will not be charged.

But the investigation has brought humiliation for him and senior aides, including chief of staff Jonathan Powell, and has cast a big black cloud over the final months of his premiership. How on earth did it come to this, when he had intended in office to be whiter than white? He now seems to be resigned to the idea of being succeeded by Mr Brown, who has been working hard to turn probability into certainty by speaking on a wide range of subjects stretching far beyond his Treasury brief. He plainly cannot be enthusiastic about it. He has been undermined greatly by the chancellor over the years, and does not see him as the ideal person to carry forward the New Labour flame. One reason for hanging on was to give that man or woman more time to emerge, but it hasn't happened.

John Reid is not that person. It is quite possible that Mr Blair would, however, prefer him to Mr Brown as the next prime minister. It is still not inconceivable, moreover, that the home secretary could beat the chancellor in a contest for the crown, and that he would have a better chance of leading his party to victory over Mr Cameron in a general election. But does Labour have the appetite for an all-out fight that would be bloody and very nasty? Does Mr Reid?

Another question: might Mr Blair actually want Mr Cameron rather than Mr Brown to win the next general election? Even if he does, he'll never say it, but it isn't a ludicrous premise. The Tory leader has very deliberately - and at times brazenly - modelled himself on the prime minister, and in so doing has substantially changed the message going out from Conservative Central Office to the electorate. "Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day. We must not be the party that says the world and our country is (sic) going to the dogs." These were some of the decidedly non-Daily Mail messages Mr Cameron delivered to the Tory conference, and there were plenty more.

He rejected committing himself to "pie in the sky tax cuts, and stressed that "the old policies" were "not coming back". He praised the creation of the NHS as "one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century". Defending his earlier 'hug a hoodie' speech - and preparing for the one that was summed up as 'love a lout' - he argued that crime could only be dealt with "if we tackle family breakdown, if we tackle drug addiction, if we mend broken lives". And in praising the institution of marriage, he said that "it means something whether you're a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man". There was also, of course, quite a bit of greenery.

It's certainly different, but it begs many questions. Does Mr Cameron mean it? (It seems he does.) Does the typical Tory member believe it? (Probably not.) Is it going to lead to a Tory victory in the next general election? The answer to the last question has to be a definite maybe. The opinion polls have been encouraging for the Conservatives this year, but not outstandingly so. They have been stuck on a plateau of 37-40pc, and there has as yet been no repeat of the phenomenon of the mid-1990s when Labour opened and kept a poll lead over the Tories of 20pc and more.

What will happen to the polls when Mr Blair finally steps down and his successor takes over? They have suggested that the Conservative lead would stretch in the event of Mr Brown becoming prime minister. But would it? It might be different if the Brown hypothetical became a reality.

The Tories have had a better year, however, than the Liberal Democrats, who still seem not to have fully recovered from their trauma over the ousting of Mr Kennedy. Was Sir Menzies Campbell the right replacement? The Lib Dems themselves appear unconvinced, and cannot therefore expect anything more positive from the electors. Overall, the latter seem disillusioned, uninspired and resigned to seeing little if any improvement when Mr Blair goes. In that sense the end of 2006 is much like the beginning.