The least formed Prime Minister since William Pitt the Younger

Every time I examine Blair I see paradox, and not resolution... Who the hell is he?
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE never been sure whether the columns of those who write about "sources" and "friends of" cabinet ministers are full of deep insights denied to the great unlunched, or just bollocks. Certainly I have managed (I think) to maintain a good record on predicting things in British politics, without indulging the appetites of barefaced ministerial advisers or wrapping myself in Drapery. I tipped Kinnock to succeed Foot (Hattersley was then the favourite), Major to take over from Thatcher, Hague from Major and - after the 92 election - Blair to lead Labour to victory. And all this unremarkable success was achieved through by a kind of Asimovian psychohistory: look at the trends, examine the trajectory, put yourself in the politicians' shoes - and predict.

Last week, sources were once again all over the place, offering their anonymous interpretations of the reshuffle, and helping to explain the interesting reasons why the journalist to whom their perspectives were confided had been so totally wrong about what would happen when Tony remade his team. You may recall the confidence with which it was asserted that Harriet Harman would be retained in the Cabinet, that anyone other than Jack Cunningham would be the Enforcer, and that young Alan Milburn would make his debut. As the Sunday papers trawled the previous Monday's news desperately trying to make something out of it, we discovered sources who were clear that the reshuffle was almost entirely a shot aimed by No 10 at the muscular solar plexus of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There are two versions of this rivalry now extant. The first is what Freud called the "narcissism of minor difference". According to this argument, Brown and Blair are so close in ideological terms that - deprived of substantial issues to argue about - their offices fall to seeking to outmanoeuvre each other in the columns of newspapers and on TV news bulletins. The second, which some on the left particularly like to believe, is that there is indeed a big ideological gap, with Brown as the custodian of traditional statist values, and Blair as a parvenu suburban, concerned mostly for the sensibilities of Mondeo Man and Clio Woman.

Any of these arguments could have elements of truth about them, I suppose. But not enough, I would contend, to explain anything. Blair is less of a Labour insider than Brown, and is - I believe - viscerally hostile to the big battalions (the trade unions) who once ruled the party. But those who see in the Chancellor the signs of a yearning for a return to the spiritual homeland of Labour should examine the interview he gave yesterday on the subject of enterprise. "There is not enough enterprise in our society," Mr Brown said. "I want to reward risk and help people to become more motivated to succeed." You can practically hear Diane Abbott's sneer. And you only have to consider Ken Livingstone's implausible mix of good transport policies with daft left populism to see what a socialist alternative would look like.

But at this point I begin to falter. My psychohistory isn't working as well as it did. I have lost confidence in my own judgement. I know neither what Tony Blair wants to do over welfare and on electoral reform, nor whether he intends to prosecute an ethical foreign policy, nor whether he sees the possibility of a realignment of British politics, nor whether he has a grand plan that extends beyond trying to create a first-class education system in this country, and hoping that this will help us compete in the next, cursed, millennium.

Every time I examine Blair I see paradox, and not resolution. The man who has, in 12 months, completely reversed a 30-year process of centralisation, yet still exercises a power over his backbenchers that seems tyrannical. The man who embodies new and informal politics, yet flies out to Tuscany to leave Frank Field to be pointlessly and counterproductively savaged by his own trained hounds. The man who promised to reform Parliament, and has nevertheless adapted himself to some of its more disagreeable and alienating Question Time conventions. The man who appointed Frank Field, and who then disappointed him; who talked about radical welfare reform, but who has not yet backed it in practice. Who the hell is he?

Instinct failing me, I found myself in conversation with a Cabinet Minister whom I like and trust, and who I will call CM. And I asked the question of CM that appears at the end of the previous paragraph: who the hell is Tony Blair? CM gave me this answer (which I have tweaked): Tony is unformed; he is plastic; he is the egg, not the chicken; he represents potential, what does not yet exist; he is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Consider, invited CM, the manner of Tony's elevation. It is the almost effortless passage of the golden youth through the great institutions of our country. Everywhere he went he was a success, and each time he tried his hand at something he excelled. His acting debut in Journey's End at Fettes College was a triumph, his lead singing with Ugly Rumours a revelation, his Oxford degree a doddle, his courtship of Cherie made in heaven, his progress from ordinary Labour Party member to MP attended by promotion as rapid as can be imagined (even if some of it was fortuitous), and his rise through the shadow ranks suitably meteoric. This is not, hinted CM, the kind of CV that is likely to make its owner over-reflective. He has never failed, or faltered personally. He has only succeeded.

So Tony Blair has come to the leadership of this country with less of a complete world-view than practically any PM since Pitt the Younger. This doesn't mean, however, that he is an opportunist who merely does what he believes is expedient, which is the Kid's Own version of Blair peddled by the Tories, by left enragees, and by Liberal Democrats who ought to know better. Far from it. He is quite capable of acts of courage, and of being radical, where convinced of the case for it.

The Third Way, then, is essentially an expression of this zygotic state. It makes any decision possible: a bit of market capitalism, a bit of state intervention, a big welfare reform, a little welfare reform, a bold innovation, a timid gesture. The Third Way is not an ideological autobahn, complete with a fast lane, a destination and well-marked exits. Blair is currently hacking the Third Way through the political jungle with his machete, occasionally crossing the muddy tracks of the First and Second Ways.

I have been here before, when, in the Seventies, thoughtful Communists tried to define the Terza Via of Eurocommunism, which incorporated the commitment to social justice with aspects of a market economy and an enhanced decentralised democracy. It was, in the end, nearly as nebulous as the Blair project. But, for all that, it was superior to most of the - then - available alternatives.

The other interesting aspect of Blair's infuriating possibility is that it is close to how many of us in this country now think. Very few intellectuals, for instance, are now "formed". We are part libertarian, part in favour of social action; part capitalist, part pro-state-intervention on behalf of the poor. The Third Way is a pick 'n' mix, see-if-it-works, try-it- out philosophy for the post-ideological era. And Mr Blair is our guide on the journey. Hold on tight.