Should he stay or should he go?

As Labour MPs spend the weekend in their constituencies judging the mood of their voters, pressure mounts on outgoing prime minister Tony Blair in the wake of the cash for honours inquiry.

As Labour MPs spend the weekend in their constituencies judging the mood of their voters, pressure mounts on outgoing prime minister Tony Blair in the wake of the cash for honours inquiry. Political editor PAUL GEATER looks back at his time in Downing Street - and at what happened to all the promise of May 1997.

NOBODY who was around for the General Election of May 1997, will ever forget one of the most dramatic nights in British politics.

It was a night which led into a glorious spring morning - and a feeling of optimism and hope that seemed to affect everyone in the country.

You didn't have to be a diehard Labour supporter that day to feel optimism about a new beginning.


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The only people really feeling down were the true-blue Tories who had seen the end of their 18 years in power - and even most of them didn't seem too disappointed.

I lost count of the number of times I was told: “A period in opposition will give us a chance to renew ourselves.”

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But what happened to all the promise of 1997? Almost ten years later most people in this country - including many Labour supporters - are desperate to see Mr Blair leave Downing Street and give the country, and the party, a new start.

So when and why did it all go wrong. How did a party that came in with a reputation for being whiter than white end up with police officers in Downing Street? And can Labour, without Blair at its head, recover from recent disasters and win another general election?

The first hint of the difficulties that Labour would get into in the future blew up during the government's honeymoon period with the voters. The opposition and political journalists got very excited at the end of 1997 when it emerged that Formula One racing had been given an exemption from new rules governing tobacco advertising. What made this significant was that Bernie Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One, had given the Labour Party £1 million in the run-up to the General Election.

But while opposition politicians and journalists got very excited, this story made little impact with the voters - this was when the “Teflon Tony” tag first arose.

The first four years of the Blair government were fairly unremarkable - but this was what the voters wanted.

Chancellor Gordon Brown avoided the financial crises that had dogged every other Labour chancellor and established a reputation for running a sound economy.

There were no dramatic changes in the lives of most people. The most significant development was the introduction of the minimum wage - not high enough for some, too high for some employers, but overall it had little major impact on the economy.

Mr Blair also had the luxury - which he has enjoyed until recently - of a divided and frankly second-rate opposition.

The Conservatives after 1997 were more interested in fighting among themselves and coming up with policies that were irrelevant to most people that they were in danger of becoming an irrelevance themselves.

The only real concern for the government came during the fuel crisis of late 2000, but this melted away as quickly as it had blown up and had no real impact on the government's popularity.

Mr Blair sailed through the general election of 2001 - the dullest this country has seen for many years - and seemed untroubled . . . until September 11 that year.

That day changed everything. The fact that his popularity has crumbled is as much due to his government's reaction to the events following that as it is to the current cash for honours inquiry.

By immediately tying Britain in too closely to America in the weeks after the twin towers outrage, Mr Blair set in train a sequence of events which led this country into joining them on the invasion of Iraq which was hugely unpopular with the voters.

Since 2002 his foreign policy has been dominated by Iraq - and that has defined his Premiership.

The unpopularity that policy stirred up has also rubbed off at home - and has meant that other difficulties like the cash for honours row have caused far more difficulty than would otherwise have been the case.

President Clinton's administration in America had problems with the Whitewater scandal and the Lewinsky affair in the mid-1990s, but the charges didn't cause him serious problems because he was basically very popular.

It is when you are not popular that issues like this can blow you off course - and with Mr Blair preparing to leave Downing Street and unpopularity with the voters, it leaves him looking very isolated and beleaguered.

The isolation and stress is now etched in his face. There is a marked difference between the fresh-faced young prime minister of 1997 and the care-worn veteran of today. We can all see differences in ourselves over the past ten years - but Mr Blair seems to have every care written in his face today.

Ipswich MP Chris Mole's decision last September to sign a letter calling for Mr Blair to say when he would leave Downing Street cost him his job as a ministerial aide.

But he has no regrets: “My position now is the same as it was last September. I feel we need an orderly handover and it should happen at the best time for the party. There is clearly concern that the events of the last few days have had an effect on the operation of the government.

“We don't know whether anyone will be charged with any offence. We don't know if the prime minister will be involved in any further stages of this investigation.

“But the fact is that all this is having an effect on the operation of the government.”

The prime minister still has the full support of Ipswich council's Labour group leader David Ellesmere.

He said: “I think Tony Blair has been a great prime minister for this country and the Labour Party.

He has said he will go later this year and should be allowed to get on with his job until that time comes.”

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