A Question of When; Tony Blair Prepares to Go for His Third Term. after That, Does He Step Aside?

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Byline: Stryker McGuire (With Emily Flynn and Peter Snowdon)

Nine words you will never hear at 10 Downing Street: "I hope to go on and on and on." On a political high in 1987, Margaret Thatcher made the mistake of uttering them, and three years later she was gone. In the halcyon days of his own premiership, in 1999, Tony Blair made a point of saying, "I have never said that I'm going to serve three terms. I have never said I want to be like Mrs. Thatcher and go on and on and on."

And yet here he is. Blair has a world of troubles over Iraq. Last week he could only listen in stoic agony to the plea of a British hostage threatened with beheading, Kenneth Bigley: "I need you to help me now, Mr. Blair." Still, the prime minister remains electorally strong. The opposition Conservative Party, or at least its remnants, is a damp squib. The unofficial opposition, the anti-Blair press, is a constant nettle, but not much more than that. All this gives Blair a clear shot at something no Labour prime minister has ever attained: a third term. As his Labour Party gathers for its annual conference this week to prepare for next year's election, delegates will argue over issues from Iraq to public services. But one question overrides all others: how long will Blair go on, and who will succeed him?

Britain's political class has long thought it knew the answer. After about two years into a third term, Blair would step aside in favor of his chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. But recent events have shaken assumptions. First, news stories surfaced that Blair had reneged on a deal cut last autumn to step aside this year. Then in a cabinet reshuffle three weeks ago, Blair dramatically raised the profile of one of his proteges, Alan Milburn, renowned for his clashes with Brown. Blairites and Brownites lunged at each other's throats. Suddenly, there was blood in the water of British politics.

The Tony Blair-Gordon Brown melodrama--the "TBGBs" in the parlance of the London papers--was a fixture of British politics even before Labour's landslide victory in 1997. But the media's obsession with the surface chaos obscures a central fact about this Labour government after more than seven years in office: strained as it may be, the Blair-Brown joint venture is the most durable partnership of its kind since World War II, and certainly one of the most successful pairings in the history of British government.

The TBGB soap opera also clouds the succession issue. For all the political machinations and intraparty warfare, Brown remains the best bet to succeed Blair. A more fundamental issue is what a Brown government would mean for Labour policies at home and abroad. Would Prime Minister Gordon Brown be "Blair mark two," as the aspiring Conservative MP Michael Gove asserts in Prospect magazine, or would he steer Labour closer to its traditional socialist roots, as Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute believes?

Like Blair, Brown is a modernizer. They have been at the forefront of Labour Party reforms for two decades. Together they have designed the big policy initiatives that have seen Labour through two successful elections and to the brink of a third. "Don't forget," says a source close to Brown. "Blair wants Brown to succeed him as a Blairite prime minister. And Brown wants to succeed Blair as a Blairite prime minister."

Both men got a taste of Labour's failings when they were elected to Parliament in 1983. Having witnessed the party's humiliation by Thatcher's Tories in 1979, they became part of the vanguard that would revamp the party over the next decade--severing its union ties, wrenching it away from the welfare state and toward free markets, and ditching its tax-and-spend image in favor of a new business-friendly profile. By 1994, Brown and Blair were both well poised to take over the party when its leader, John Smith, died. As part of a supposed deal done at a trendy North London restaurant, Brown stepped aside in favor of the slicker, more nakedly ambitious--and more electable--Blair. …