The prophet of New Britain is showing signs of mortality
`Tony Blair is starting to draw the same flak and mutterings of discontent as any other politican'
This, I hear, went down like an Arthur Scargill speech at a convention of Young Blairites for Business. A chilly fog of silence descended on the room. Only Mr Blair, that natural dissipator of tension, saved the day by laughing uproariously.
The discomfort felt at a gaffe of this sort is directly proportionate to the suspected truth it reveals. As we report today, Millbank's mid- term assessment of the Government and the Prime Minister's standing, based on a range of private and published polls, warns of a growing perception that Mr Blair is arrogant, and becoming out of touch with the electorate's worries.
The prophet of New Britain is in danger of being seen not to have delivered the promised land of substantially improved public services. "Health is a problem," the internal analysis concludes. "Education is becoming a problem." Mr Blair is also showing falling ratings in the category of World's Oldest Political Disappointment, namely, not keeping his promises. In other words he is starting to draw the same flak, doubts and mutterings of discontent as any other mortal politician. The Teflon coating of invulnerability is at last showing a few scuffs and scratches.
New Labour is strongly influenced by the Clinton White House in picking over its own perceived flaws. The Tory Party learnt the hard way that shielding its leaders from unwelcome news about the way the country felt about them was a recipe for electoral oblivion. To this day, earnest young men at Conservative Central Office are well paid to inform William Hague that by May 1997 people had really, really, really come to hate the Conservatives. And to think that we could have told them that long before, and for nothing.
Like Margaret Thatcher, Mr Blair has weaknesses that are closely tied to his strengths. She was seen as decisive but bossy, a great leader but intolerant and uncaring. Mr Blair seems to be going the same way. The finding that will provide most comfort for the Prime Minister is that he is "still respected, but less loved". Love, he can get from Cherie and the kids. Respect, he needs from the rest of us if he is to stay in control and in Downing Street.
But he does need to watch and redress the charges of arrogance and distance, not because these are causes of prime ministerial mortality in themselves, but because they tend to magnify and be magnified by underperformance in other policy areas.
At the moment, it doesn't matter whether Mr Blair shows some chinks in public standing, since his rival is failing to register at all on the barometer of public affection. No one seriously doubts that Mr Blair, at his most arrogant and distant, would still defeat William Hague at the next election. New Labour's real fear is for the second term. Mr Blair is prone to the superstitious anxiety that he will join those other Labour governments that failed to complete two periods in office, let alone get any grand ideas about a third.
So No 10 will take away two lessons from the Millbank dossier on embryonic popular discontents. First, that Mr Blair should avoid minor but memorable lapses of judgement such as occurred over his disastrous summer holidays, and ensuing grumbles about why he did not pay for his own suntan like anyone else. The Prime Minister seems genuinely not to understand that this made him appear self-indulgent. But it caused avoidable harm to his image.
The second is that the planned pace of substantial changes to the way that Health and Education are run has been too slow and partial. This is the result, in part, of old Labour attitudes that are still unreformed beneath the veneer of the new ones. It is also the result of a lazy belief among Mr Blair's senior advisers that "all that" can safely be left until after the next election. It turns out that the discontents are now running ahead of timetable.
Mr Blair will also be prone to a lot of bad advice about how to redress his little popularity problem, not least from the ranks of the trade unions and left-wingers in the party who believe that sacrificing the sacred "core Labour vote", rather than failing to deliver change in the public services, is the cause of disaffection.
The bars at the TUC conference in Brighton this week are full of people telling each other that New Labour is too distant from working-class and producer interests and far too closely entwined with the middle classes and the demands of employers. Mr Blair, however, has built his church on a different rock: namely the belief that there is no inherent clash of interest between bosses and workers, business interests and jobs. Yesterday, he preached the gospel of inclusion to the doubting Thomases in robust terms: "In backing business, we support employees, in supporting employees and employment, we are backing business."
The mind wandered to that ancient Greek logical contortion: "The way up is also the way down; the way back is also the way forward; the end is also the beginning." Blairite ideology is a similarly unrelenting synthesis of opposites, a smelting of iron contradictions. On one level, it is nonsense. As any trade union organiser, moderate or militant, could tell you, Mr Blair's message is flawed; there are clashes of interests between workers and the people they work for and government is forced from time to time to decide which side it is on.
Mr Blair's message was not addressed primarily to the hall, however, but to the rest of the country - and it was that he and not the assembled union leaders know best about the interests of the workforce. The unions are supplicants; the Government disposes.
Because the modernising changes to the Labour Party have been steadily incremental and have suffered no serious setback, we tend to forget how far the relationship between the party, the unions and the old "core vote" has changed. Each year, the blandishments decrease and the pep talks multiply. I still remember the days - oh, it must be a whole three years ago - when Mr Blair thanked Old Labour for making New Labour possible, in defiance of the obvious fact that had Old Labour been a success, New Labour would not have been necessary. Now "Old" is simply a swear word in the Blairite lexicon, and Peter Mandelson is adding unvarnished warnings that the Government must please the middle classes first and foremost in order to stay in power. Asked what socialism was, his great-grandfather Herbert Morrison replied, "It's what Labour governments do." Not now. What they do is get and keep power. Mr Kinnock was wrong about only one thing: this Messiah means to hang on to it in this world, not save it for the next.
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