The people's trust may no longer be enough to solve Blair's dilemma

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The Independent Culture
LIKE TS ELIOT'S nifty malfeasant Macavity, Geoffrey Robinson, the catalyst of so much Government mayhem, stole away quietly from the scene of the commotion at the end of 1998, murmuring something about it being time to go while looking as if he had not the faintest idea why everyone around him was so worked up.

Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson spent Christmas at his mum's, where he was photographed looking strangely vulnerable, as men do around Christmas when they are wearing a very new sweater. It would be unfair of Mr Mandelson to say that nothing in his political life became him like the leaving of it. But by going quickly and, even more importantly, with good grace, he has stored up some blessings for himself. The precedents for ousted ministers returning to Cabinet are not good. But Mr Mandelson has broken more than one precedent in his career. He'll be back.

The departures of Mandelson and Robinson were a kind of bonfire of the vanities. Two separate but inter-linked dramatic plots inside New Labour detonated simultaneously. The Brownites and the Blairites in New Labour's simmering internal feud lost a player each. Despite the greater importance of Mr Mandelson, it is the Brownites who will take the harder loss. None dare call it treason, yet there are a lot of very disruptive questions about why news of the private loan surfaced and how much Mr Robinson's offers of largesse were intended to shore up an alternative power-base grouped around the Chancellor.

In 1998, the Brown camp lost the Chancellor's loyal namesake Nick Brown from the strategically significant potion of Chief Whip. No 10 will continue the purge by ensuring that the next Paymaster General is far less colourful than Mr Robinson and nowhere near as doggedly devoted to Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister, albeit by an unexpected and circuitous route, gets back the state of affairs he described after the election as "Peter going on being Peter", which means Peter being on call for Tony when Tony has an election campaign to plan and the pro-Euro campaign to sort out. If ever there were a time when Mr Blair needed a spare brain unencumbered by ministerial cares, this is it.

The third year in office is the time when we can reasonably ask which of the Government's plans are on course and which have gone walkabout: 1997 was an undisputed triumph - the year of walking on water; 1998 has seen him forced to start swimming, like any other mortal leader. As a result of his own miscalculation, Mr Blair lost a difficult but bright moderniser in Frank Field and a not-so-bright, but still admired personality in Harriet Harman. Welfare reform has returned to a rather more sedate pace than the advance billing announced.

Meanwhile, the New Deal, the flagship of New Labour's policies, is ambling along as Government employment-schemes do: patchily successful, relatively expensive. It will be sorely tested if the economy obliges the nation's Cassandras and really does go into a bad recession next year. On Europe, Mr Blair has been forced, by some rather ragged diplomacy from the German government, to defend his de facto policy of British entry into the single currency and drop the pretence that he is still waiting and seeing. The starting signal for the British referendum battle has been given in Bonn. Mr Blair has no choice but to allow the argument to rage in the run-up to the next election. Mr Mandelson is now the obvious figure-head for the "yes" camp. His presence would demand that the opponents of EMU find an equally persuasive and professional candidate to oppose him in the war of the television studios.

A great deal of Mr Blair's popularity is down to his ability to combine an unstilted and understanding manner with statesmanship. The combination has served him well in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. But the end of the year approaches, the deadlines come and go, and there has been no IRA decommissioning. This state of affairs is becoming intolerable for even moderate Unionists. Without some republican gesture by the next Good Friday, Mr Blair will have trouble convincing doubters that the peace process is more than a grand exercise in wishful thinking.

We still await real information of how effective the last bombing of Iraq was. Mr Blair was stuck with the US policy of air power without a commitment to send in troops. In military terms, this is an extremely dodgy proposition. Saddam had to be bombed, said Mr Clinton and Mr Blair in unison. So bombed he was and is now "back in his cage". I have noted before that when the Prime Minister uses unamended the tabloid language of his spokesman Alastair Campbell, something is not quite right. Saddam is not back in his cage and will not be so until he is dead or overthrown.

The Government remains caught between the traditional Atlanticism which defines Blair's defence and security policies and the pro-Europeanism which is the mood music of New Labour and the underpinning of his pro- EMU stance. It will be very difficult for him to partake in any further Anglo-American military action without opening a split with the EU.

Anyway, the domestic battlefield provides challenges enough. The Scots and Welsh vote on their new assemblies in May. It seems unlikely to me that the Scottish Nationalists will oust Labour, as some in the party high command fear. The real problems for Labour in Scotland begin if they are elected as the single largest party. The pressure to challenge Westminster for more power and to strike out in a more overtly Old Labour direction will be considerable. In Wales, Mr Blair may yet find that there are no means fair or foul to rid himself of the disgustingly chirpy and very unreconstructed Rhodri Morgan. The European elections offer a rescue rope to William Hague, who will profit from the introduction of the PR system he opposes. Labour will lose a lot of seats, which does not matter much of itself, but will be the first sign that the party is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of elections.

Politics is more than the sum of its parts. Successful leaders need to preserve the sense of living through events with the electorate and of sharing the same joys and woes. The pressures of the last year have seen Mr Blair becoming more distant from the rest of us.

Sometimes, in the edge of my political vision, I have the sense that the Prime Minister is disappearing. Too often, it is his Government colleagues who are making the news and he who provides the damage limitation, as he showed yesterday in a rather uncomfortable defence of Mr Mandelson. We see less of him where he is at his spontaneous best and more presidential mode of interviews and formal addresses.

He has not yet forfeited that most precious of political commodities: instinctive trust. But he must be aware that it is vulnerable, and that without it, the noblest intentions turn swiftly to dust.