23 April 2004
To get anywhere in this business of writing about politics is like politics. You don't have to be right but you have to sound as though you're right all the time. And you do have to have, somehow, a track record of accurate predictions, some of them brilliantly improbable.
The Sketch has served you well, I feel, in this regard. A week after 11 September 2001, it covered the Foreign Secretary's statement to the Commons with a report including the words: "My God, they're going to invade Iraq." In February of last year, the Sketch placed a £250 bet with William Hill at 8-1 that Michael Howard would be the leader of the Conservative Party within the year. And, as any compulsive truthful columnist would boast, there have also been predictions so wide of the mark that no one can remember what they were.
To modify the opening proposition: it isn't necessary to be right in political prediction, just to be first. So, here we are. Having previously told you (quite fiercely, I now remember) that prime ministers never willingly resign, I now say that the Prime Minister will resign this summer.
Tony Blair's manner has changed subtly but decisively. The blithe quality has gone and a certain mischievous humour appears from time to time. (Have you seen it? You'd like it.)
In the course of yesterday's monthly press conference he made several successful and slightly subversive asides which made us laugh out loud. The crack about the French was risqué enough to be funny.
But, in between the outbreaks of puckishness, he is grindingly, obsessively - what's the word? - passionate about his prime ministerial concerns. The special relationship. The entente cordiale. The tapering benefits regime for pensioners expressed as a ratio against tax credit take-up for working mothers with disabilities.
But then the warmth of his smile (never very great, for close observers) has been fading more quickly than hitherto, leaving the teeth exposed in an expression denoting fear and defensive hostility.
He's had his lows, especially in the summertime, so maybe this is coincidence. But he is dealing with a slump in credibility, he has made a mistake over the referendum, and his 10th anniversary is coming up.
If he were to hand over power to Gordon Brown after the next election we would all recoil, would we not, at a Soviet-style breach of the democratic process. Ken Livingstone came to power in the GLC all those years ago without being elected. I don't think Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would sink to such a stratagem.
So the blinding insight is this: they're going to do the decent thing. Ha! The column that dares to say what others daren't think!
The handover in the summer, the installation at the party conference, the election early next year.
Oh, and the punchline to all of this is: Gordon Brown loses. They haven't seen that firstname.lastname@example.org