The British Labour Party wrapped up its annual conference in Brighton
on Friday without any real resolution of the question that most
interests the commentators: how much longer will Tony Blair stay? He
has promised to retire before the next election, but since that could
be as late as May 2010, there is plenty of scope for speculation.

Just like John Howard, Blair has a long-anointed heir presumptive, his
chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. Unlike the Australian
situation, however, there is no generation gap between the two, which
fuels Brown’s impatience. But Blair seems in no hurry to leave, and
British observers think that since this year’s election, the situation
has shifted slightly in his favour. As Martin Kettle said in The Guardian, “Blair has clearly come home from Brighton stronger than he arrived.”

Support for Brown has always been driven more by dislike of Blair –
especially over the Iraq war – than by any other factor, and the polls
suggest that support is now waning. Both sides remain committed to an
orderly transfer of power, but there is less agreement than ever on
when that should occur.

Also like John Howard, Blair has a strong interest in his place in
history. Readers will recall the satisfaction with which Howard
surpassed the records of first Malcolm Fraser and then Bob Hawke, to
now be second only to Menzies among long-serving prime ministers. Blair
is currently twelfth on the list of longest-serving British prime
ministers, but of the eleven above him, only three date from the last
hundred years, and he will pass two of those (Churchill and Asquith) in
the next few months.

His real target is the third, Margaret Thatcher, whose record he would pass on 26 November 2008 (although Saturday’s Australianinexplicably reported it as 2 July). If he lasts until then, Blair
will be the seventh longest-serving prime minister of all time, but the
longest for more than a century.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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