No wonder the PM looks so tired, he's running a one-man show

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AN ABIDING image at the end of this long, hot summer term has been the "Tony Blair - Before and After" photograph. Virtually every newspaper has juxtaposed the image of a youthful Tony Blair from five years ago alongside one which highlights his features now, etched with weariness. In a reverse of the cosmetic advertisers' slogan, the photographs' implication is: "Become Prime Minister and grow old quickly."

At least Blair can be assured of no jibes in the media about the length of his holiday or its sun-kissed location in Tuscany. The media has decided that the Prime Minister is knackered and needs a good long rest.

As is usually the case, the photos do not tell the whole story. It seems to me that Blair still looks pretty good for his age and has an enviable capacity for reviving himself after a short break. He will look years younger in September, unless his holiday is interrupted because of an unexpected crisis (as it was last year after the Omagh bombing). Although the words "Go off and relax, Prime Minister, John Prescott's in charge" may not be the most reassuring that Blair would wish to hear, relax he surely will.

The recent photographs were deceptive, anyway, in that they were taken after Blair had been holed up for a week in Belfast with prevaricating Unionists and nationalists. Twenty-four hours in such company would be enough to age all but the superhuman, especially as all the hard labour proved fruitless. Coming straight after the war with Kosovo, in which even a short break was impossible, it is not surprising that Blair looked shattered.

Even so, take away Kosovo and Northern Ireland, and Blair still tries to do too much. When he appeared at a London Underground station last week, I almost expected him to descend into the tunnels and drive the tubes himself. Perhaps he should have done, as no one else appears to be doing so at the moment. His call for the Underground management to deliver more than mediocrity for its additional money echoed a highly effective performance on Newsnight two days earlier, when he stressed to teachers that the Government had the right to make demands in return for additional money. The messages were the right ones in both cases, but if public-sector reform is to be dependent on Prime Ministerial intervention on a weekly basis, then he will soon age in a way that would immunise him, even, from the restorative powers of sunny Tuscany.

Prime Ministerial ubiquity can be explained partly by the novelty of the job. After 18 years, power has arrived and it is power of the most untrammelled kind. Nearly always there is an early flourish from new occupants in Downing Street. Reflecting on his first period in power, Harold Wilson said that he felt the need to be "in midfield and score all the goals as well". By 1974, he was "content to be in midfield, allowing the rest of the team to score the goals". (Those footballing metaphors were as fashionable then as they are now. Football, at least, provides one link between old and new Labour). Wilson was so much a midfielder by the 1970s that he took no active part in the 1975 referendum campaign over Britain's membership of the Common Market. It is difficult to imagine Blair assuming such a defensive role. But, equally, it will be impossible, as Wilson discovered, to carry on trying to score all the goals on his own.

There is more, though, than a youthful flourish in Blair's determination to be here, there and everywhere. It reflects a lack of confidence in his governing team. To take one example at the higher levels, Blair cannot feel that he is drowning in talent if he is tempted to bring back Peter Mandelson after six months. In the lower ranks of the Cabinet and outside, there are no candidates who combine Mandelson's drive, administrative skills and highly tuned Blairite instincts. For what it is worth, I do not believe Mandelson will get a call back into the Cabinet yet. But the point here is that in spite of a massive parliamentary party, Blair cannot easily say to himself: "No problems, without Peter I can call on X, Y and Z." There are no obvious Xs, Ys or Zs.

More than enough has been written about the likely Cabinet changes. The more serious and under-reported difficulties arise at junior ministerial level. The reshuffle of the juniors will be as important as the Cabinet ones. Successful junior ministers can ensure that polices are successfully delivered and alert their senior minister to potential problems. Equally important, if Cabinet ministers trust their juniors they can delegate, freeing up more time for them to reflect on the overall direction of policy. Ken Clarke, a shrewd observer of the current administration, told Radio 4's Week in Westminster last week that its Achilles' heel lay in the mediocre quality in the junior ranks. He argued that a key to ministerial longevity at a senior level was a highly competent bunch of juniors lower down.

Their importance is obvious when you consider some of the successes. A senior economist who has regular dealings with the Treasury told me that he had come to respect Patricia Hewitt and formed the impression that, surprisingly, Gordon Brown had delegated considerable responsibilities to her. Ian McCartney has been an important minister at Trade and Industry in ensuring a modernising agenda was delivered without alienating the trade unionists. There are a few more names I could add to the list, but not that many. What is more, there are not large numbers of backbenchers waiting in the wings who are bound to be successes in government. Blair has not been asking himself "How do I deal with all this parliamentary talent?", but "Is there enough talent to fill the posts?"

The composition of the parliamentary party has been determined by some unusual circumstances. A landslide has produced a lot of MPs who did not expect to win their seats, and plenty of members who should have retired long ago, but stayed on in the hope of sitting at last on the government benches. In the meantime, 18 years of one-party rule meant that many people who would normally have gone into politics looked for careers elsewhere. We are left with a curious state of affair that a uniquely popular government cannot find a candidate to be Mayor of London and struggles to fill its junior ranks with sparkling talent.

There are two solutions which spring to mind. One is electoral reform for the Commons, so that one-party rule for decades becomes almost impossible. The other is to considerably increase the salaries of MPs in order to attract more talented people to the Commons. As both these solutions are deeply unfashionable, we will be stuck with the current arrangements for the foreseeable future. Blair may yet have to drive the Tube trains himself.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'