Gordon Brown has lots to think about

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Gordon Brown is away on paternity leave. And therefore has more time to reflect on Tony Blair's comments, in St Petersburg, about looking forward to still being prime minister when a G8 summit is held next July.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Gordon Brown is away on paternity leave. And therefore has more time to reflect on Tony Blair's comments, in St Petersburg, about looking forward to still being prime minister when a G8 summit is held next July.

Did the chancellor know he was going to say that? I bet he didn't. Did he know he was thinking it? It's much more difficult to know the answer to that one. Mr Brown has been much more relaxed in recent weeks about the succession issue, and that has encouraged speculation that he knows when Mr Blair is going and is happy with it.

Has he really been given a date, however, or even a firm timetable? Does he have anything in writing? If he has been told anything, is he really sure his understanding of it is the same as the prime minister's? Mr Blair's latest comments on this issue can be interpreted as those of a man who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from No 10. If you were being harsh, moreover, you might be thinking that the people doing the pulling would be wearing white coats.

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In Blairworld everything, it seems, is still fine and dandy. The prime minister is apparently untroubled by the developing 'cash for honours' story, though it could theoretically end with him writing his memoirs inside a prison cell. And he's totally relaxed, he suggested, about John Prescott standing in for him soon when he goes on holiday. Reality will just have to be changed until it matches Mr Blair's perceptions.

Did the prime minister fail to notice at the G8 summit that other leaders are taking him less seriously? President Putin was sufficiently emboldened to make a joke about the fight against corruption in Britain - in the course of which he explicitly referred to Lord Levy. By then, moreover, President Bush had already begun to make it clear that the mantle of best mate and ally in chief was being transferred from Mr Blair to German chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Is it bound to go like this as a decade in No 10 is approached? Those who remember Lady Thatcher's last couple of years as prime minister might be inclined to think so. Her judgment - not least over the poll tax - came increasingly into question, and there was a similar sense then that a reality-bypass operation had been performed.

It is inevitably a strange existence in No 10, and it is bound to take its toll after several years. All that time spent listening to people who are essentially think-alikes and who for that reason, and also to safeguard their positions, have an interest in telling you what you want to hear. All that time spent trying to keep on top of many complex issues - and trying to convince voters that you are succeeding in doing so. Maybe one of the wisest features of the US constitution is the eight-year maximum imposed on serving as president.

The problem is compounded in Mr Blair's case by the fact that he, unlike Lady Thatcher in 1989-90, is committed not to lead his party into another general election.

He knows - unless he is concealing hope that he will be asked by senior party colleagues to change his mind - that he will not have to face the electorate again. That gives him more freedom to do and say things he considers right but which are also unpopular. It also provides him, as his detractors might suppose, with more scope to be self-centred and bloody-minded.

Mr Blair recently promised Labour MPs, when under increased pressure just after the council elections, that he would give his successor "ample" time to settle in before the next election. But what does "ample" mean in this context? The election could still be almost four years away. Is the prime minister planning to go soon after his 10th anniversary next May? Sooner? Or later?

When one considers the atmosphere of malaise surrounding the government and the prime minister's own position, it is hard to believe that his party will gladly allow many more months of speculation about the succession, and the attendant weakness. If we are no closer to a resolution by early September, the build-up to the Labour conference in Manchester towards the end of that month could become angry and manic.

Does Mr Blair recognise that the conference itself could become explosive and very messy if he has not defused the tension with a clear and unambiguous statement about his intentions? Does he care very much? And what will happen if he tries to finesse his way through the conference preparations and the conference itself?

Would Mr Brown be prepared to lead a coup? He does indeed have much to think about.

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