The end of the road for Blair

Don't know about you; you've got a day job. But I got a bit depressed when I found the Blair-Brown 'when will he go' saga bursting into life again the moment we tore the last page off the August calendar.

It's still a good fortnight before Labour's annual conference meets. Surely they could have spared us another week?

To their credit our current batch of health ministers have kept out of this row and stuck to their demanding day jobs.

It is more than can be said for Alan Milburn. The former tenant of Richmond House keeps making toughly worded calls for a debate on Labour's future direction before the hand-over.

He names no names; that's how the game is played. But arch-Blairites fear Mr Brown must say and do more to prevent the 'progressive consensus' he seeks becoming a prisoner of a 'regressive coalition'; in hock to the left and the unions again, their chequebook power restored by the cash-for-peerages shambles.

That's not what Mr Brown wants. In under-reported speeches he warns public sector unions like Unison that restrictive practices must not stand in the way of modernisation and value for money.

John Reid, another Richmond House graduate, once assured me he and the chancellor agree it is a false dichotomy (both men talk that way, though Reid also speaks fluent Populist) to claim that a public service ethos is incompatible with choice and a stronger market element in healthcare.

Like his ally, Steve Byers, Mr Milburn is more impatient. 'A Trappist vow of silence will not work,' he wrote on Sunday. Remind you of anyone, does it?

The Brownites think it does and Ed Balls MP, the chancellor's number one frontman, says 'the idea that we need a period of navel-gazing... is absurd'.

My own views have evolved since we last discussed it on this page. I am no longer convinced Tony Blair is doing his party, his government or his country much good by hanging on. The summer might have gone well for him and seen his premiership through to next summer. It hasn't.

Despite Mr Blair's efforts to show he's still full of energy and strategic ambition - true enough - too many people are not listening. He should make his position clear at the Manchester conference, perhaps by saying 'this is my last conference as your leader' or promising he'll go before the crucial May elections.

There are drawbacks to this approach, but they are now outweighed by the sheer distraction of 'when?'.

True, much of it is cooked up and exaggerated by Blair's enemies, who want to get rid of this triple-winner as soon as possible.

But Blair has run out of road, as political leaders all do eventually.

Whenever the time comes he will back Mr Brown to succeed him. Whatever private doubts he may harbour about his old friend and rival's ability to keep the New Labour coalition afloat in the face of growing public weariness and a sort-of-revived Tory party, he's the only real option.

Labour too is weary and there are calls, dangerous to any party of government, to embrace a period of opposition to sort itself out under a younger leader.

But Mr Brown does not want to be Jim Callaghan, a fag-end premier (1976-79) whose government eventually collapsed into Thatcherism, after the chaotic public sector pay row and the 'winter of discontent'.

Older NHS managers and union officials will remember it with a shudder. We rightly tell each other this is a different Britain. But there are no guarantees.

A story I heard several months ago was that one woman cabinet member had been told by an emissary from the Brown camp that her job would be safe when Gordon takes over. Could that have been Patricia Hewitt?

My Cabinet source wouldn't say, but I think it was more likely to be her than Tessa Jowell, to whom Mr Brown rarely talks.

Ms Hewitt has deserved the hard time the Treasury gave her over ballooning NHS deficits. But they are coming under control, touch wood. She is smart enough to survive.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) ofThe Guardian