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Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

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When the biographers of the future come to record the life of Tony Blair, they should reserve a special footnote for Catherine Tate. The comedian was responsible for a few minutes of television last Friday which captured not only a key aspect of the man who has governed Britain for the past 10 years - but also illustrated the sheer strangeness of our current politics.

It was a segment on Comic Relief and I watched it open-mouthed, in a combination of incredulity and admiration. Tate was in Downing Street as Lauren, the Asbo-heavy schoolgirl who asks perennially, "Am I bovvered?" Lauren was on work experience for the PM, who listened to her rant about Top Shop, trainers and pikeys before turning her shtick back on her. "Is my face bovvered?" Blair asked, his accent Laurenesque estuary. "Face? Bovvered?"

If any other politician on the planet had attempted that, it would have been excruciating. But Blair was uncannily, arrestingly good. His timing was flawless; he had memorised the script and delivered it with confidence. In a night packed with A-listers such as Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, Blair fitted in perfectly. Your mind went back to the PM's famous admission that he "always wanted to be an actor" - until you remembered that that line too was a fiction (delivered by the actor Michael Sheen as Blair in The Deal).

To imagine Gordon Brown repeating the stunt is enough to make the toes curl. But the telegenic David Cameron would have looked gauche and forced too. Blair was so good, the Comic Relief sketch was exactly what the farewell tour - its plans leaked last September - was always meant to be, a reminder of the man voters fell for more than a decade ago. For a few moments you could put cash for honours, even Iraq, out of your mind and smile at the Tony Blair so in touch with British popular culture he can walk right inside a TV sketch.

It was a sign that, despite everything, this strange spell, since September, when the PM announced he would go within a year - making Blair a constitutional novelty, an outgoing prime minister - is working for him quite nicely. Not drummed out of office, but leaving at a time of his choosing, he is out there, selling himself one last time to the public. At Tate Modern this month he had arts luminaries cheering his impact on culture. On board HMS Albion in January he stood surrounded by military hardware as he boasted of his war record. Issue by issue, constituency by constituency, he is ensuring the Blair premiership is rung out on a high note.

Downing Street aides speak of these months as an Indian summer of the Blair era, the PM suddenly liberated from the need to win re-election and "off the leash". There is no precedent for this in British politics. Even second-term US presidents have to worry about midterm results. But Blair is like an outgoing American president in the three months before the inauguration of his successor. Suddenly he can do what the hell he likes, floating into a zone somewhere above politics.

His allies say that he's using this freedom constructively, pushing necessary moves like last week's climate change bill and the Freud review of welfare. But there is another, less rosy view of this period - one that the planners of the legacy tour will not like.

It is that Blair has found himself beyond the reach of normal accountability, and is exploiting that freedom to distinctly shabby effect. Take last week's railroading of the decision on the renewal of Trident. The government promised it would consult on this momentous and costly move - but the consultation was a sham, a three-month pretence at listening when the minds that matter were made up long ago. Nearly a hundred Labour MPs rebelled, but Blair didn't care: he slipped their surly bonds long ago.

But that doesn't match the abandonment in December of the Serious Fraud Office's corruption inquiry into a defence deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. Despite mountains of documents suggesting enormous cash sums heading the Saudis' way, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, told parliament the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence - and because MI5 and MI6 believed Britain's national security would be in danger if justice was pursued (though, interestingly, the heads of those agencies have refused to endorse that claim). In an incredible sentence, Goldsmith explained that the decision had been made in the wider public interest, which had to be "balanced against the rule of law". But the rule of law should not be balanced against anything. If it is, you descend down the slippery slope into dictatorship.

In normal times, the SFO decision alone might have forced Blair's exit: to suspend the law because of threats from a foreign government is as serious as it gets. But the issue gained no traction, because there is nowhere for political outrage to go. How can you demand that Blair quit when he's quitting anyway? The result is an eerie lethargy in British politics, thanks to which the prime minister is unconstrained.

That may be a comfortable position for Blair, but where does it leave his designated successor? Gordon Brown might have benefited from this spell, had Blair decided to use it to take some of the painful decisions that would otherwise come to hurt the next man in No 10. Driving through closures of assorted NHS wards fits that description, Tony taking the heat so that Gordon won't have to. (What's more, I'm told Downing Street staff joke that Blair has appointed himself Brown's campaign manager, so often is he on the phone to the chancellor offering advice.)

For all that, the current state of limbo has been a disaster for Brown. He finds himself as Westminster's Prince of Wales, about to inherit, but denied the authority of the top job and obliged to stick to the Firm's line lest he reveal division in the ruling family. He has to save his big new ideas till he's actually on the throne; to unveil them now would be to throw them away. Ever since September, Brown has thus been paralysed and exposed, unable to go mano a mano against Cameron, yet required to absorb all the Tories' punches.

There will be more today, when he gives his 11th budget. Cameron and George Osborne will hurl at Brown every Stalinist epithet they can find, now able to cite the former mandarin Andrew Turnbull as their authority. Brown will have to soak it up; until Blair is gone, he cannot fully join battle.

So each week he has to read polls such as yesterday's ICM survey in the Guardian suggesting a 15-point lead for the Tories if he were in charge. Brownites remain sturdily optimistic, insisting that everything will change once it's a straight fight. But the deeper worry must be that politics, if left static for too long, has a habit of setting. The longer this period of limbo endures, the more likely it is that the current Tory lead will harden. A fixed view will form, of Cameron as a winner and Brown as a loser (an impression already bedded down by the über-Blairites).

So this bizarre, unprecedented period is working fine for our current prime minister - but it is draining away the chances of the man, and the Labour government, who would succeed him. It would be nice to think that troubled Tony Blair. But I suspect he spoke the truth last Friday: he ain't bovvered.


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