Opinion: Blair deflects attention onto Brown rift

There are not many political events that shake Westminster these days, but Tony Blair's astonishing statement last week certainly did.

In pre-announcing his retirement, he risked being seen as a lame-duck Prime Minister. The jury may still be out on that but you have to hand it to Blair for coming up with just about the most audacious PR stunt in modern political history. Here was a leader who had had a poor party conference, having been heckled during his lacklustre speech. He was about to enter hospital for another heart op and was aware that his wife's purchase of a £3.6m house was about to hit the press.

For any leader other than Teflon Tony, that would surely have spelt the complete and immediate end; but no: unbelievably, he's still there. By telling us that he planned to stay on for a full third term, the heart op and house purchase became secondary to the media obsession of Gordon Brown versus Blair. This was, of course, what he wanted. Even a GCSE politics student knows that a full term means five years, and I have as much chance of being PM as Blair has of lasting one year, never mind five years, after the general election.

Political junkies are all used to announcements being made to the media rather than a wider audience, but how will the public react to being told on TV what the PM's political plans are? Okay, he did add the caveat that it was up to the electorate, but that was very much an after-thought. MPs, union leaders and Labour members still matter too, and how will they react to being kept in the dark?

Blair's announcement has overshadowed the Tories' conference in Bournemouth this week, but they are part of the reason why Blair is still PM. As the Conservative Party falls to a poll rating lower than when Iain Duncan Smith was in charge, the only decision left is how far it can move to the right to prop up its core vote.

The other reason why Blair remains firmly in charge is Brown's reaction to his statement.

The Chancellor was furious, but his decision to ask friends and supporters to shut up and remain loyal to the leader was crucial to preventing an immediate civil war.

Blair was still worried enough though to make the mistake of personally ringing newspaper editors in search of support. This was a desperate measure by a desperate man. The last PM to try this was John Major, and look what happened to him.

Fortunately for Blair, his party still wants to win the next election.

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