TO GET a sense of how febrile is the political climate in Britain today all you need to do is follow the latest controversy surrounding Prime Minister Tony Blair a controversy sparked by a seemingly throwaway remark he made in a radio interview on a visit to Australia this week.
Replying to a question, Mr. Blair agreed with the interviewer that it might have been a "mistake" to announce, as he did two years ago, that this was going to be his last term in office.
"Now it was an unusual thing for me to say but people kept asking me the question so I decided to answer it. Maybe that was a mistake," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
That comment at the end of a long interview eclipsed all else that Mr. Blair did or said during his trip to Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia as the British media and Mr. Blair's critics in and outside the Labour Party pounced on it to claim that he intended to linger on at No 10 indefinitely. His remarks, they said, indicated a shift in his previously announced plans to step down sometime during his current term.
Attempts by Downing Street to deny this only served to heighten speculation. Indeed, the more Mr. Blair's aides sought to demystify his comment the more closely Westminster anoraks applied themselves to decoding its "hidden" meaning. Ever since Mr. Blair declared in October 2004 that he would not contest a fourth term, he has been facing calls to indicate a time-table for his departure in order to ensure a smooth succession and to give his designated successor, Gordon Brown, enough time to prepare for the next general election. After his ABC comment, those calls have turned into a chorus intensifying the pressure on him to set a date for his exit. Even Blair loyalists such as the senior Asian Labour MP and parliamentary secretary Ashok Kumar have joined the bandwagon publicly demanding that he should "tell us" when he is going to step down.
A guessing game is going on in the media over the probable dates on which Mr. Blair could announce his resignation. The self-styled time-table includes every single significant date on the political calendar such as "Tuesday, Sept 26, 2006" when he addresses the Labour Party's annual conference; "Wednesday, May 2, 2007," which will be the tenth anniversary of his prime ministership; "Tuesday, July 24, 2007," the last day of Parliament before the summer recess; "Wednesday, Sept 25, 2007" to coincide with next year's Labour Party conference; "Friday, May 2, 2008," the 11th anniversary of his occupancy of No 10; and "Thursday, Nov 27, 2008," when he would have beaten Margaret Thatcher's record in office.
The view gaining ground, especially in pro-Labour circles, is that if Mr. Blair does not oblige, he should be told to go. "The men in grey suits must do their duty," said New Statesman in an editorial alluding to the practice in the Conservative Party where a committee of senior leaders dubbed the "men in grey suits" has the authority to get rid of a disgraced leader. Since Labour has no such mechanism, the magazine suggested that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, should be given the task of wielding the hatchet.
"Now, he must go ... and tell him [Mr. Blair] it is time the promised orderly transition be put into practice. The announcement [of Mr. Blair's departure date] should take place this spring, with a leadership contest in the summer and a formal handover at the party conference in the autumn. A decade in power has dulled the senses of the Labour Party. It must revive those senses before it too late," it commanded.
Mr. Blair is widely seen to be fast approaching the "John Major moment" the point where his Tory predecessor lost the trust both of his party and the nation's electorate. Those who lived through that phase point to striking similarities between what is happening to him (backbench revolts, falling popularity ratings, allegations of corruption) and the mood that prevailed in Westminster and beyond during the last phase of Mr. Major's premiership. It was finally destroyed by the famous Labour landslide in 1997 ending 17 years of uninterrupted Tory reign. That was nine years ago, but already May 2, 1997, when Mr. Blair swept into Downing Street promising a new dawn in British politics is looking like a date from another age.
Mr. Major once said that he would quit "when people least expect it." In the event, he was thrown out. Will Mr. Blair be able to avoid his predecessor's fate?