Cometh the hour, cometh the... no, not you, Gordon

There is no spectacle in politics so terrible as a Chancellor of the Exchequer pledging loyalty to a prime minister. Grown men weep. Women and children run for cover. Churches fill with prayers. Shops run out of milk powder. Yet on Monday at Church House in Westminster, Gordon Brown did just that. “The whole nation should support Tony Blair,” he cried. A mirror shattered in an Islington restaurant.

Is it conceivable that Mr Blair could be challenged as leader in the very act of going to war? Surely not. Is it wise? Certainly not. But how does the question even come to be asked? There’s the rub.

Tony Blair’s predicament has become the ruling obsession of British politics. His plight is beyond historical parallel. He is where no wise statesman should ever be, up a creek without a paddle. Washington is persuaded that Mr Blair must have a “second resolution” on Iraq before going to war. He may get that, but what he cannot get is a resolution explicitly authorising war. The great hypothetical is about to become fact.

A Labour prime minister is sending almost the entire British Army east of Suez on a venture that most of those round him regard as both folly and illegal.

Mr Brown’s loyalty is beyond question. But in politics loyalty, like treason, has always been a matter of dates. Ambition is its lifeblood.

He who would be king must strike when the iron is hot. Mr Brown may never again seem so attractive to his party. He is no foreign adventurer, no caped crusader, no back-room bombardier. He would not have got himself into this pickle. Labour’s hard men and women are exhausted by Mr Blair’s tarnished razzmatazz. In comparison Mr Brown is an old committee room and a pint of beer. He is familiarity.

For Labour, as for much of the country, Mr Blair is still a mystery. His record in office has been six years of paradox. Although a Labour leader, his outlook is entirely Thatcherite. Although left-wing, he craves the approval of the right-wing press. Although a liberal, he imprisons more Britons than anyone in history. A localist in opposition, he is a centralist in power. He snubs Labour’s power base in the trade unions and universities. Now, the one-time champion of European co-operation is leading Britain firmly into Washington’s embrace.

Mr Blair’s decisions have been those of a man who never thinks beyond the short term. He appeased the tanker drivers, the foot-and-mouth farmers, the green belt developers, the hospital doctors, and the Treasury ideologues over the London Underground. His recent, unpublicised, ceding of pay parity to workers in the privatised public services will cost the state billions. Mr Blair is still a superb presenter, but he has never shown himself decisive or bold. He is painfully like the hesitant tool of others depicted by his satirical doppelgdnger, Rory Bremner. The Prime Minister cannot even bring himself to sack Clare Short.

Yet all agree that something has come over Tony Blair. He has learnt the thrill of leading from the front, after an entire career spent following polls, advisers and focus groups. There was a middle way on Iraq. Britain could have deferred to the United Nations properly. Mr Blair could have given arms inspection a decent time to fail before rushing to military intervention. He could have distanced himself from Washington’s six months of hamfisted diplomacy and stuck with the consensus forged round Resolution 1441. He could have worked through Europe. It would have been messy, but an option.

Instead Mr Blair has found a single-mindedness over Iraq that wholly eludes him on the home front. It has offered a simple theatre of good and bad.

It has appealed to Mr Blair the barrister, offering a client and a brief that he can defend with passion. President Bush and Mr Blair are in many ways similar. They are both well-educated yet unintellectual. They like things simple, which is why both are less comfortable with economics. Abroad they both slide with ease into the quasi-religious language of moral crusade. They both read the Bible, not Shakespeare.

But similarity ends there. Mr Bush is a man of business. He is reported to listen, decide and act. Mr Blair has no knowledge of business and prefers postponing decisions to taking them, as Ms Short knows to her advantage. He needs to be given a brief, a cause to defend on his feet in court. Today he is like a man who has scraped by on dock briefs but suddenly finds himself appearing in Regina v. Satan. This is the Prime Minister’s biggest ever case. He must adopt the entire persona of his client. He must become his better voice, his absolute certainty. That is how Tony Blair supports George Bush on Iraq.

Those in contact with Mr Blair these days are both impressed and unnerved. While Mr Bush is quietly determined, Mr Blair is messianic, almost above the fray. He consumes that dangerous morning brew of threat assessments, to the point where he seems convinced that Britain is under some immediate and demonic threat he cannot reveal. Each week a new Horseman of the Apocalypse arrives at the Pas de Calais or Waterloo Station. Britain must build bunkers, order gas-proof Jaguars, put machineguns in Parliament and ring Heathrow with tanks. Go into any Whitehall building these days and you sense a government in the grip of institutional panic.

The Prime Minister seems to revel in his liberation from popularity. He knows that the military and diplomatic establishment is sceptical of his course of action. He does not care. His two operational colleagues, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, carry no public or political weight. He is adored by the “Pentagon chic” of the right-wing salons, but that wins no votes with the party majority for whom Ms Short now speaks in public. He does not seem to mind. He can stop reading editorials and quarrelling with the French and the Germans. He knows his European project is dead. He is happy alone.

Mr Brown would be less than human not to watch Mr Blair’s every move, as the jackal watches a stumbling buck. He is so nearly Macmillan to Mr Blair’s Eden during Suez, the Chancellor charged with paying for war, yet with most to gain from its failure. As the troops went in, Macmillan confided to his diary an eerie foretaste of today: “On what principle can we base a casus belli? How do we get from the conference to the use of force?” It did him no harm.

The old stories of the Brown-Blair deal to share the leadership resurface too often to be forgotten. Mr Brown drank from that loving cup. It has become the devil’s potion. By day he is the jovial Dr Jekyll, showering his friend with support and paying for his war. By night he is Mr Hyde, pacing Downing Street with bloodshot eyes, tapping horribly on the window panes.

The news that Labour backbenchers are planning a special leadership conference if Mr Blair goes illegally to war may not be a serious threat to his position. For him to lose his job at a time like this is unthinkable. But image is important to the Blair supremacy. A challenge would revive the party factionalism that blighted the last years of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, which Mr Blair’s “project” was meant to eradicate.

While he may survive this wretched war, the dinouement of his office may be as messy and uncharismatic as was that of his pre- decessors.

Yet I must admit that the opposite could happen. Mr Blair’s wars may be wrong, but they are not yet lost. Like Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands, Iraq will have been an awful experience for him. But it could yet invest him with a new style of leadership, one less craven to popularity and more ready to defy the short-term unpopularity at home. He could at last start to deliver.

Mr Blair remains the most effective political operator of his generation. He is a global player and in a different league from Mr Brown.

Labour cannot rely on the Tories forever offering no fight. The party may have need of the old magician. I would be amazed if the membership ever replaced him with that gloomy control freak, the killjoy of Number 11.

Besides, does the party really want a man so ambitious that, now of all times, he can threaten his leader with unstinting praise?