Blair and the Real Battle of Downing St; Gordon Brown Failed to Strike, and Now the Prime Minister Is in Control Again

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Byline: STEPHEN GLOVER

As Cabinet shuffle re-ignites the feud between Labour's giants ONE OF life's great temptations is to assume that palpable rogues whom we dislike and despise are bound sooner or later to get their comeuppance.

So it has been with Tony Blair. Here is a man who misled us into a war against Iraq and told some untruths in the process. All opinion polls suggest that a majority of British people know he lied. In a fair and rational world he would have been driven out of office.

Alas, we do not inhabit such a place. Not long ago, Mr Blair's demise was widely predicted. He was sunk in gloom and is said to have discussed throwing in the towel, though whether such a vain and power-hungry spirit could have ever done so I doubt. Even so, he looked nervous and ill at ease - hounded, and almost shifty.

And yet the same man, written off only two or three months ago, has returned from his holidays in ebullient mood. Those days spent at Sir Cliff Richard's villa in Barbados, and jaunting about with his friend Silvio Berlusconi, have rejuvenated Mr Blair. Actually, he was pretty upbeat before he went, airily postponing a Cabinet reshuffle, and appointing his old ally Peter Mandelson to a plum job in Brussels despite the complaints of supporters of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Now that he is finally back on British soil, the Prime Minister has again aggravated the Brownites by proposing to appoint Alan Milburn, a loyal Blairite, to the chairmanship of the Labour Party. This is the same Mr Milburn who resigned as Health Minister nearly 18 months ago, telling us how important it was for him to be with his children and subsequently delivering us a lecture about the perils of overwork.

Evidently, all that has been forgotten.

Mr Milburn may not loom large on your or my radar, but his prospective appointment has shaken Brownites to their gunnels. Here is a man who fought skirmish after skirmish with Mr Brown, principally over the issue of so-called foundation hospitals. To appoint such a man to the chairmanship of the party, where he will mastermind Labour's election strategy, is both a snub to the Chancellor and an indication of Mr Blair's renewed confidence.

Shunted aside in the reshuffle will be the existing Labour Party chairman, Ian McCartney, a diminutive Glaswegian not widely understood south of the border, who is liked by the Brownites and is also, for some reason, the particular pet of John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister. Meanwhile, perhaps as the clearest sign yet of Blair/Brown discord, the distinctly Brownite Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith resigned yesterday because he opposes proposed cuts to disability benefits. He also resents having been briefed against by Blairites over recent weeks.

How is it that a leader who seemed so weak three months ago feels sure enough of himself to give a job to Mr Mandelson, a Brownite hate figure, and an even more important job to Mr Milburn, who is scarcely more liked by the Chancellor and his gang?

Part of the explanation lies in the hopeless performance of the Tories over recent weeks. They have made little or no impact with their dozens of new and often barely intelligible initiatives. Nor did Michael Howard's attempt to criticise Mr Bush over the Iraqi war carry much conviction, given the Tories' previous enthusiasm for the cause.

To be fair to Mr Howard, he had been boxed in by the fervently pro-American policies of his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, though he did seem happy to go along with them at the time. …