Long to reign over us, God save Tony Blair

`This is the first British government containing senior ministers who are not instinctive monarchists'
HERE IS a scene from Tony Blair's famous visit to Australia in July 1995, when he paid homage to Rupert Murdoch. The scene has not been reported before, as it occurred before Blair flew on to Murdoch's island to conduct some fruitful business. It took place on the afternoon of his arrival at Australia's prime-ministerial residence in Sydney, a spectacular house overlooking the harbour.

Journalists gathered in the large garden of the house. There had been no security checks. Anyone could have wandered in. Late in the afternoon Blair and the Australian Prime Minister of the day, Paul Keating, emerged from the house to give a press conference. As the conference ended Blair and his press adviser, Alastair Campbell, turned around immediately to head back into the house. Before they had time to move more than an inch, Keating said to the journalists and any passers-by who had joined the gathering: "I'm going to show Tony around the garden. If you would like to join us for the next hour or so, you're welcome".

A flicker of horror passed across Blair's jet-lagged face. This was not how we did things in the United Kingdom. Once a press conference was over, it was over. The star politician disappeared from view. How can one develop a prime ministerial aura if one is so accessible and available?

It may not carry quite the same cachet as being the first journalist into Port Stanley, but I was the only correspondent to travel with the Blair entourage on that controversial trip. Even then, with Blair still two years away from power, access had to be carefully negotiated. Yet the Australian Prime Minister was available to anyone who wanted to join him for a picnic in his garden. In other words, the political culture in Australia is very different.

Political journalists tell me it is not uncommon to bump into senior ministers in a local supermarket. There are virtually no security barriers impeding contact between leader and voters. National politicians have the same aura as a big council's leader in Britain.

Every country needs a whiff of enigmatic mystique in its rulers, and you do not get that if you know you can bump into them choosing some frozen peas in a supermarket. Although, in my view, Australia was mistaken to vote for the monarchy, I am not surprised that it did so. A relatively young country, with an earthy political culture, was clinging to some mystique.

But what about the very different political culture in Britain, which is drowning in ritual and mystique? By the time of that Australian visit, Blair, as leader of the Opposition, was already acquiring a distinct aura. Power was about to descend, and he was becoming a more distant, elevated figure as a result. Already he was performing a dual role, as political leader developing policies and as the nation's leader-in-waiting.

After the Dunblane shootings Blair, though still in opposition, visited the school and the hospital with John Major. Both were on the scene before the Royal Family. As Prime Minister he's articulated the nation's feelings at times of "crisis" even when the crisis has involved the royals, as in the death or Diana, Princess of Wales. His family is photographed on holiday in Italy, the perfect role model for a modern Britain, compared with the royal version scattered neurotically around Britain's castles.

Nor is Blair the first PM to become a near-monarchical figure. Margaret Thatcher acquired a regal presence, albeit one that was closer to Dame Edna Everage than to the more discreet Windsor version. John Major, even, when he still had some prime ministerial dignity, became a leader with a ceremonial, ritualistic role. His visit in the immediate aftermath of Dunblane is only one of several examples.

A number of unrelated factors have created a much more deeply felt prime- ministerial aura. The threat of terrorism has inevitably had a distancing impact, cocooning our political leaders in a world removed from ours. The insatiable demands of the media have forced them to focus much more closely on image and presentation. Prime ministers have become simultaneously ubiquitous and elusive, an enigmatic combination. More importantly, and worth investigating further, the decline of political parties has enabled their leaders to rise above them.

Although we vote for parties and not prime ministers as individuals, the occupants of Downing Street are becoming more presidential.

Into this potent pot the Government has thrown its constitutional reforms.

On yesterday's Breakfast with Frost, the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Jay, argued that the removal of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords in no way undermined the monarchy. I cannot reveal whether the current Queen agrees with her, but I do know what that sharp reader of the political scene, Queen Victoria, would have thought. And, thanks to Roy Jenkins's biography, we also know Gladstone's view.

More than a hundred years ago, leading Liberals in Gladstone's government wanted the hereditary peers abolished. Queen Victoria was horrified, writing to the Prime Minister that the hereditaries often represented the "true feelings of the country". Gladstone concurred, adding: "Organic change of this kind in the House of Lords may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken, the foundations even of the Throne." Gladstone and Victoria were being more candid than Baroness Jay. It will not be long before the Queen, when she opens new sessions of Parliament, will be the only one sitting there on the basis of the hereditary principle. She will be exposed and consequently more vulnerable.

There is another factor to give some hope to British republicanism, which is harder to quantify. This is the first government containing senior ministers who are not instinctive monarchists.

In opposition several of them suggested fairly radical reforms to the monarchy. I would estimate that two-thirds of the current Cabinet would not shed any tears if Britain became a republic. The Government is far too cautious to raise the issue (look how scared it is of the fox-hunters ) but, if a sequence of events turned public opinion against the monarchy, ministers would not be the most reliable allies of the Queen. With Rupert Murdoch's newspapers starting to preach the republicans' cause, anything is possible. Ministers are always more relaxed when marching side by side with The Sun.

The Government is threatening to kill off the remaining few hereditary peers if it is defeated tonight in the Lords over welfare reform. I doubt if it will carry out such a threat, but the prospect has unnerved the Tory leaders in the Upper House. Once the hereditary peers came and went from Westminster whenever they wished. Now a few cling on desperately. In such a context, the monarchy appears increasingly anachronistic. But more dangerous for its confused and bewildered members is its irrelevance, even as a series of performing puppets at times of national crisis. Australia may still have a monarch when Britain has abolished its monarchy.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'