Brown bides his time as Blair's runs out

I can usually tell how much of a crisis Tony Blair is in by the number of interview requests I get. In the past few weeks I have been virtually camped out in the local BBC studio.

What the broadcasters really want to know from me is what the Chancellor is up to. Last week I was rung by the BBC as news broke that Gordon Brown had been called back from the Middle East minutes after landing.

I confidently predicted that the Prime Minister would just about win the 90-day detention vote. I sensed this was another Blair PR stunt, pretending to the world that the vote was tight before claiming yet another historic victory. It never occurred to me that 'Teflon Tony' could so badly misjudge the mood of parliament.

I got one thing right though - Brown was furious at having to come back so soon. The real reason he returned was that he was told by his office on landing in Israel that the vote was lost, having heard the opposite from whips before he left.

The Chancellor felt he couldn't afford to be away from Westminster in the wake of a Blair defeat, having rightly concluded that that would have been very bad PR for himself.

His spin doctors cleverly spun the line that Brown had been summoned back to save the day yet again for the PM. This was a win-win situation.

If the vote was won, he could take credit, and if it was lost Blair would take the blame. And so it turned out. But the Blairites were well prepared and moved heaven and earth to portray the defeat as a victory.

In PR terms they did a good job and were helped by public opinion being on the PM's side. Labour is now seen to be tougher on terrorism than the Tories are - a sure-fire future vote winner.

So what is Brown's game? What concerns him most is the state the Labour Party will be in when he assumes command. One of the main reasons he never stood against Blair in the first place was because he didn't want to have to rely on the hard left to defeat his rival. He certainly doesn't want their support now. Loyalty, too, is important to the Chancellor - as it is to most Labour MPs.

It's now all up to Blair as to how long he can last. The Chancellor has said this week that the Cabinet needed to listen more. By that he meant that Blair needed to listen. He also said the Government must continue to implement its manifesto. If the PM tries to go back on a manifesto pledge like he did with top-up fees in the last parliament, only then will Brown make his move.

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