Blair's Handover and the Unwilling Exile; under Attack from Charles Clarke and under Pressure to Name a Date for His Departure, Tony Blair Could Still See His Former Home Secretary as a Loyalist in the Coming Battles

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Byline: ANNE MCELVOY

IT WAS uncommonly bipartisan of the former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to assist David Cameron's preparation for Prime Minister's Questions today with such a memorable line: "There is a sense that Tony has lost his sense of purpose and direction."

Such a "sense" can only, as Mr Clarke knows full well, be amplified by a loyalist ex-Cabinet minister turning his ire on the PM in public and choosing no less than three media outlets to do so in case anyone missed it.

A limited number of interpretations suggest themselves. Either he is using "renewal" as in the Brownite code for changing leader sooner rather than later, as Gordon Brown's allies and the Labour Left have long wished.

Or he is genuinely hoping that his intervention helps re-galvanise Blairite New Labour for its final phase in office.

Trailed as Labour's "Geoffrey Howe moment", this wasn't really it. The brutal, murderous clarity of Lord Howe's demolition job was not on offer.

He loved Mr Blair: he loved him not.

The PM ought to fight on if he recovered his zeal - or perhaps give way to Gordon Brown. This was part attack and part lament.

It enabled the instant psychoanalysts of Downing Street to describe him ruthlessly as a "disappointed man". There is, however, a lot more ambiguity on both sides than the headlines today allow.

Indeed, Mr Clarke even extended a warning to Mr Blair's office at the end of last week that he was about to make his criticisms public.

He was genuinely shocked to discover that he was being moved from the Home Office as the foreign prisoner crisis threatened to engulf the Government in the wake of May elections. Even more so to find that, even before the crisis, a plan had been in circulation at No 10 to install John Reid in the Home Office and send Clarke to the Foreign Office.

That sequence was unhappily interrupted by the prisoners' fiasco which meant that Mr Blair could not promote him. An attempt to use Dr Reid to persuade him to move to defence was rebuffed (the Prime Minister is possibly the country's least efficient personnel manager, bar David Brent).

Friends of Mr Clarke point out that he was doubly riled at having been moved - in his view too early - from education to replace David Blunkett at the Home Office. He has been known to joke of himself as the "minister for unfinished business" .

Underlying this unhappy career saga is a criticism of the periodically haphazard nature of Mr Blair's leadership style that many senior ministers have come to resent, even if they do not say so as openly as Mr Clarke.

The problem with this final phase of Blairite government is not really a lack of leadership and direction at all. It is a lack of implementation and application to driving through changes, with the result that too much that has been promised as the final splurge of reform - on pensions, social security and welfare and the NHS - remains only partially done as time runs out.

Delaying his departure into next year at least is thus essential to the PM's plans to conclude a fair share of his intended business and Mr Clarke is still considered an ally in this undertaking. …