Kicks are starting to hurt for Blair



At their last clash in the House of Commons, Michael Howard told Tony Blair he was "very much looking forward" to debating the findings of the forthcoming Hutton Report. The Prime Minister's mouthed back: "So am I." It was unconvincing.

Ever since Dr David Kelly was found dead in the woods last July, the Prime Minister has ducked every public question with a stock response: don't be impatient. Let's wait for Lord Hutton's report.

As he sat on Sir David Frost's breakfast TV sofa yesterday morning, Mr Blair did not at all seem like a man who was looking forward to its publication. When asked if he would lead the debate, his response reeked of the fudge being cooked up in No 10.

"The only thing we've said about the debate a week later from the report, is that all the decisions about whether you've a vote on it or whose speaks will be made at a later time." Will he be there to personally defend his government? No comment.

There is only one alternative: read a brief statement when Lord Hutton first reports, take no questions, then when it comes to the debate the week later, wheel out Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, or another similar minister to take on Mr Howard.

It is hard to believe that Mr Blair would opt for such a self-defeating act of political cowardice in the end. But leaving doubt hanging over this crucial issue shows a Prime Minister who is being buffeted by events.

At the back of Mr Blair's mind will be the 1996 Scott Report into the arms-to-Iraq scandal under the last Conservative government. On publication, Robin Cook delivered a devastating response which eviscerated the then Tory government.

Mr Cook, then shadow foreign secretary, had only two hours to prepare his response - and the damage he wrecked on John Major's team remains legendary in Labour folklore. The Tories now have the chance to do the same.

Two differences: Mr Howard is a trained lawyer who knows Mr Blair's tricks and has worked out how to exploit his vulnerabilities. Mr Howard may have some distance to go convincing the rest of the country - but he seems to be unnerving the Prime Minister.

Perhaps the most telling statement in Mr Blair's Breakfast with Frost interview yesterday was the outburst which accompanied inquiries about his health. Normally, Mr Blair would laugh off questions about his heart condition - and seek to crush the slightest suggestion that he was mortal, far less ill. Yesterday, he did not.

"I do show the fatigue when it's there but I mean this is a job where you know a thousand people are kicking your backside morning, noon and night so it's not surprising really," he said.

A thousand people kicking, morning noon and night. These words appeared to come from the heart, and this image gives a telling glimpse into how Mr Blair feels at the moment - kicked not just by the Conservatives, presumably, but his own party, the media and more.

Time was when he would never use a word like "fatigue" - which, as he knows, can be used by his enemies to sum up his government. But this fits a trend of behaviour seen over the last few weeks.

Why, for example, was Mr Blair absent in the House of Commons when his government introduced the Higher Education Bill last week? Time was when he would be sitting defiantly beside the relevant minister - this time, Charles Clarke, the education secretary, was on his own.

The biggest mystery over tuition fees is that the idea behind Mr Blair's policy is a good one: no-one pays up-front fees anymore, the poor will receive a more generous grant to encourage them to study and the bill is settled in later life through 12 years of higher taxes.

Staggeringly, 10 Downing Street has failed to express it this way - and has been defeated in the spin battle by the likes of Nick Brown, the former chief whip and chief ally of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.

People in Britain genuinely believe Mr Blair intends to charge students £3,000 a year for university education, rich or poor. Worse still, concessions to the rebels have bastardised the legislation - Mr Blair is letting rebels mould his plans.

Even leading universities say the policy will not deliver the money they want. Just as with the foundation hospital legislation, Mr Blair has given so much ground that the policy can be seen as little else than a good start.

This is the same Prime Minister who, this time last year, was taking on his whole party over the war on Iraq and was proved right, with a quick victory. Now, his power seems to be visibly draining.

It could well be that he is missing Alastair Campbell. His former confidante and spin doctor may phone No 10 a couple of times a week, but this is no substitute for the day-to-day command of the spin machine which Mr Blair relied on him for.

No 10's failure to explain the fees policy - and be out-spun by the rebels - would have been unthinkable this time last year. The once mighty No 10 seems to be increasingly dysfunctional, and failing to take out Mr Blair's enemies before they start kicking him.

The tactic Mr Blair was attempting yesterday was "closing down" the Hutton Inquiry issue - knowing that the report may still be a fortnight away. The more questions he answers, he believes, the more he will be asked - keeping the Hutton Inquiry in the news and keeping him in trouble.

His fear is that, by the time Lord Hutton's report is published, he will be boxed into a corner by the Conservatives if he keeps responding to the issues they raise - and fuelling their attempts to push Lord Hutton in the news.

It is a long time since Mr Blair took the Tories so seriously. The tuition fees rebellion has come at the very worse time: if yesterday's BBC interview was an attempt to appear on top of events, then it backfired.

Last month, he was saying privately that he is relaxed about the tuition fees vote: if he loses, he will simply resign rather than attempt to lead a party that fails to reform.

He has gone from a prime minister under pressure to a prime minister under siege - and, we now know from the remarks about the thousand people kicking him that he feels it.

The government could lose the tuition fees vote; Mr Howard could perform brilliantly over Hutton. Mr Blair will know that together, these events could finish him.

Totality recall

When I said ‘totality' I mean there have been days and days of evidence given to Hutton. There are a whole series of things that have been said, both in the inquiry and outside of it. What it means is everything that has been said. Not just taking one bit out here or there."

Mr Blair on the definition of "totality"

"The only thing we've said about the debate a week later from the report, is that all the decisions about whether you've a vote on it or who speaks will be done at a later time."

On debating the Hutton Report

"Now you are going to have a very clear choice at the next election between a Conservative party that believes basically they should come back to complete the Thatcherite revolution, and today's Labour Party that is a modern progressive party that wants to take this country forward."

On Michael Howard

"I'm sure if Alastair wants to come and help then his services will be used."

On Alastair Campbell, his former director of communications, returning to help Labour during the next general election

"We received that intelligence about Saddam's programmes and about his weapons that we acted on. It's the case throughout the whole of the conflict. I remember having conversations with the chief of defence staff and other people were saying well, we think we might have a potential WMD [weapons of mass destruction] find here or there. Now these things didn't actually come to anything in the end, but I don't know is the answer."

On whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction