Changes afoot at No 10, even if Blair survives

BY ANY measure, this will be a fateful week for the Prime Minister and the political landscape he has created. Either of the two pending tests of his leadership - the vote on university top-up fees and the publication of the Hutton Inquiry report into the death of Dr David Kelly - could deeply wound Tony Blair. The two in combination put his premiership on the line.

He has made both issues a matter of personal credibility. On top-up fees (the vote is on Tuesday, shortly before 7pm), he has gone on record as saying that his personal authority is at stake. If he loses this vote, he may be forced to resign or call a vote of confidence in his leadership. Such a step could not but seriously weaken his authority. Even though there were signs over the weekend that Labour rebels were switching sides to vote in favour of tuition fees, the vote should still be a cliffhanger.

The Hutton Inquiry has the capacity to inflict enormous damage, even if the Prime Minister is not personally criticised. Its outcome is altogether more complex than that of the "sudden death" tuition fees vote. Hutton is more like a slow burn, especially as the issue of weapons of mass destruction is not at all likely to fade away, but to haunt and dog his time at No 10 until the end.

Nevertheless, Hutton, too, could fundamentally change this premiership. Mr Blair himself told the inquiry that, if the central allegation that he spun Britain into war is sustained, he would have to quit. The report will be published on Wednesday.

If parliament suspects that the Prime Minister is hiding behind the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon - as Robin Cook alleged yesterday - and Mr Hoon’s resignation is offered as some sacrificial scapegoat, this may have the effect of only delaying the coup de grce until the next controversial issue comes along. By sacrificing a Cabinet minister who carried out what No 10 essentially wanted, the Prime Minister will have lost the goodwill of the House and will find himself at its mercy.

There are reports that Mr Blair is expected to escape personal censure in the report, even though it is likely to be highly critical of his government and the No 10 press machine. A survey yesterday found a majority of voters believed Mr Blair should resign if Hutton finds that he or his staff acted improperly over the naming of Dr Kelly. And some 59 per cent thought Mr Blair should go if the report finds that the Prime Minister’s staff deliberately inserted exaggerated claims into its September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

After the report itself will come a searching - and potentially highly damaging - Commons debate with Michael Howard a week later. Even if the Prime Minister emerges relatively unscathed from this week’s events, it is almost certain that the Hutton report will be the catalyst for major changes, both in the rules and the behaviour of the civil service and in the role and scope of the No 10 press and public relations machine.

The president may survive, but the means of presidential power may be radically diminished. And this may prove the toughest test of all for Mr Blair: whether his premiership can long survive the remarkable special effects machinery on which it has relied so much and for so long.

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