Blair declares war on Brown

That’s how Jackie Ashley interprets his admission that last Autumn’s announcement of his intention to retire may have been a mistake. She writes:

His real intent, confirmed in off-the-record briefings, was to win a further delay, to signal that he would not be bumped into retirement by newspapers, cartoonists, backbenchers or indeed the chancellor. He has a date in his head but, the nods and winks suggest, this is likelier to be in 2008 than any time soon. He wants to wait until the health service is fixed – and you can’t kick a ball into the long grass further than that.

So this is a fightback, a gauntlet thrown down, an apparently modest admission of mistaken candour that is really a declaration of war. Interestingly, like the original announcement, this was made when prime minister and chancellor were thousands of miles apart and arrived like a bolt from the blue. The chancellor had no advance warning.

It changes everything. It means that Brown’s appeasement of No 10 has yet again won him nothing at all. It gives a signal to those, such as Charles Clarke, who feel that by 2008 they might have a good chance of taking on the chancellor. So it removes both imminence and certainty. The whole future leadership question is thrown wide open. Judging by past performance, Blair may now add to the confusion by saying something placatory about Brown inheriting in due course. If so, it will be meant only to avoid an immediate eruption from the Treasury, to buy a little more time. It won’t mean anything really. The prime minister is going to stay as long as he possibly can; and if he can hand over to someone who isn’t his old friend and old enemy Gordon Brown, then he would be delighted.

Er, one doesn’t want to boast, but this is what I wrote on the matter last December:

If — as is widely believed — there is some kind of deal between him and Gordon Brown that the latter is the anointed successor, then Blair’s declared intention of serving “a full term” as Prime Minister seems bizarre. If he really wanted Brown to succeed and have a fighting chance of winning the next election, then there must be an orderly transition fairly soon (and certainly no more than 18 months from now). But this is not how Blair — steaming fanatically ahead with his reform-or-bust agenda — is behaving. Why?

Watching Brown in action this week as Adair Turner’s sensible report on the pensions crisis was published, an obvious thought occurred to me (I’m slow on the uptake, alas). It’s this: Blair doesn’t want Brown to succeed him, and he’s going to do everything in his power to stop him becoming leader!