Blair: the man behind the image

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Two years in the job, almost to the week, and Tony Blair has lived through a whirlwind. He has revolutionised the Labour Party; calmly ditched a raft of Old Labour policies; retained a huge opinion poll lead over John Major; been attacked as a dictatorial conservative; and learned to live constantly in the public eye.

Over the last year, the photographer Peter Marlow was given unique access to important moments in Blair's life. Here we present a portrait of the man many expect to be the next Prime Minister. John Rentoul begins by assessing his public impact and, on page 12, the editor of the Independent, Andrew Marr, talks to Blair about the effects of leadership on him personally

Tony Blair's life changed on the Great Northern Road in Aberdeen just after 9am on 12 May 1994. Because of his long legs, the shadow Home Secretary was in the front passenger seat of the standard-issue, Labour party red, Vauxhall Astra taking him from Dyce airport. He was on his way to a routine Euro-election meeting in a constituency the party did not even expect to win.

The mobile phone rang, and Maureen Smith, the press officer for the Scottish Labour Party, passed it to Blair. It was David Hill, Labour's chief press officer. A hospital was mentioned. "I thought one of his children had been injured or had fallen ill," says Norman MacAskill, the local party organiser, who was driving.

"John Smith has had a heart attack," said Blair when the call was finished. He was immediately on the phone again, to Anji Hunter, his assistant. "It may not be so bad," said Maureen, mentioning Michael Heseltine, who had just survived a heart attack. "I don't think we're in that kind of situation," said Blair simply. Two more calls, from Gordon Brown and Derry Irvine, head of Blair's legal chambers, confirmed that Smith was dead.

"It was a cataclysmic event because I was in a state of shock and grief over John, who I was very close to and to whom I owed a lot," recalls Blair. "And then - I mean, whatever anyone says - within moments of these things happening, the world just moves on."

Blair went ahead with his schedule, but he was continuously on the phone in the car and at the Labour Party office. When he was not on the phone, he was talking about his children - "his first reaction was that he wanted to go home to his family," says MacAskill. An early flight back to London was booked. Blair travelled alone to Heathrow - his last 45 minutes as anything resembling a private citizen.

When he arrived in London, it was as potentially the next leader of the Labour Party. Already there was a crackle around him, a charge of energy. The change took the Labour Party by surprise, but it frightened it, too. When it elected him, on 21 July 1994, the party only half knew what it was doing. It knew it was electing the candidate most likely to beat the Conservatives: "If Blair turns out to be as good as he looks, we have a problem," admitted a leaked Tory memo. But Labour members did not understand what making their party safe for Tory voters might mean, and Blair didn't tell them. When he was asked about Clause IV he said it was not the priority.

But in two years, he has wrought changes in the party's constitution, policies and language that no one thought possible. The draft manifesto, New Labour, New Life for Britain, formalises the positioning of New Labour as a party of the centre rather than the left. Ma ny party members are bruised and simmering with discontent, but, among the general public, Labour continues to enjoy unprecedented levels of popularity.

Blair has dominated British politics as no opposition leader has done since Harold Wilson in 1963-64. But, underneath the surface, attitudes are hardening and the contours of Blair's strengths and potential weaknesses are increasingly visible.

How images of politicians develop and change over time is a mysterious process which even the most self-controlled practitioners like Blair cannot determine. But Blair understood better than most the need to define himself before his opponents defined him, and has put such energy into the task that neither physical fitness nor his intellectual confidence can be questioned.

He has presented himself as a modern statesman, flying to Australia (the original "young country" of last year's conference speech, where he lived for three years until he was five), to Singapore and to Japan (to show he understood the threat of economic competition from the Pacific Rim), to America (to be seen with "the most powerful man in the world", Bill Clinton) and Germany (to address a vast audience of business people patently desperate for a more "reasonable" prime minister ).

However, it is, increasingly, the unintended words and events which have shaped his image. The Labour Party's own opinion research found that Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a selective grammar school was almost the only thing about the party that made any real impression on most voters in the past two years. The row gave a strong impression that Labour Leaders "say one thing and do another", and it reminded people of Blair's own earlier decision to send his son to the London Oratory, the Roman Catholic boys' school which has opted out of local council control. The Oratory is not academically selective, but it is not really a comprehensive school, either.

Clause IV may have been the symbol of Labour's traditional values, but the commitment to comprehensive education was, and still is, the substance. These two decisions touched raw nerves. But Blair has brushed aside internal dissent with a ruthlessness that could spell trouble once in power.

As he himself put it in last year's conference speech, the story of his leadership has been the transition from Bambi to Stalin. Roy Hattersley says the way Blair has handled his party's unhappiness is counter-productive: "We are now perilously near to regarding conflict with long-serving activists as a public relations bonus."

If Blair decided to "take the party with the leadership step by step," says Hattersley, it would have given "the next government the security that years of ideological provocation cannot provide".

Ideological provocation may be necessary, and it has certainly been refreshing to see all of Labour's most cherished beliefs challenged. But there is an arrogance in and around Blair. The way the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution were announced was calculated to inflame opinion in the party.

It is much too soon to start predicting the kind of bunker mentality which brought Thatcher down after 11 years of power, but it is significant that one disgruntled former insider has said of Blair's people that "the trouble with them is that they hate the Party more than they hate the Tories"