Two years' hard Labour

For a relatively young man on the threshold of power, with no experience of government yet carrying so many hopes and fears on his shoulders, the past two years have been exhilarating if demanding. Tony Blair speaks to Andrew Marr about the loneliness of leadership
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Blair: I had a very clear understanding of the enormity of the job because I'd seen it through knowing Neil Kinnock very well and John [Smith] very well, too. But I have to say, nothing quite prepares you for it, and you have to go through an extraordinary process of hardening very quickly.

It's a very weird and difficult thing to explain to people who haven't been through it, but you suddenly go from a position where a few people know who you are and occasionally somebody recognises you, to being a focus of public attention about whom people have very strong views. Because of the position you have willingly put yourself in, you and your family are a target for attack. You have to take decisions and keep to them. You have to learn to distinguish between the criticism you can shrug off and the criticism that you should pay attention to. And you have to understand that what happens in the next day's papers isn't necessarily the end of the story.

It requires a complete bouleversement in your whole attitude, a process of adjustment that anyone who's been in this position understands; but you need to go through it. And when you're coming upon the leadership in the circumstances that I did, you need to go through it very it quickly.''

I asked him whether he didn't think the most important change was the loneliness of leadership.

Yes, that's right. It is part of the deal. All your relationships change. It is far more difficult to have friendships. And, in the end, the buck stops with you. Now, I'm perfectly happy with that; it's what I've wanted, really. But it does make a difference.

I can see how, if you're not careful, whatever public persona you have starts taking over your private being, but I hope I haven't done that so far. Having young children is a very great blessing in that regard because they really aren't much interested in all the problems and squabbles. Having a secure family life is a tremendous benefit - in fact, I couldn't have done it without it.

I'm probably far more disciplined and single-minded in my life. I set aside certain parts of time for leisure and I keep to those - I can switch off from work. I mean, I don't have difficulty when I'm playing with the kids in playing with the kids. And I'm physically fitter than I have been, I should think, for 20 years. Because I work such long hours, the only way I can do it is to take a lot of exercise. You've got to do it, otherwise you go crazy.

I have learned about myself that I actually enjoy the responsibility, even though it can be extremely difficult. And I have a very clear sense, as well, of what I wanted to do, first in terms of changing the Labour Party and, secondly, in terms of what we can do for the country.

Did the ''Tory Blair'' jibes get under his skin?

I find it very irritating. They don't actually hit home because I know they're not true, but what I worry about is whether they disillusion those whose support is required to win. The whole problem we have is that people define radical politics by reference to a set of attitudes and policies that the Labour Party had 10 or 15 years ago.

If you change from that, people say, well, that's not radical politics any more, without asking whether there's not a different type of radical politics which is still true to the values of the centre and centre-left but which is recast in a different way for today. What is fascinating for me today is that, as I travel abroad, New Labour is actually looked to by most of the developing centre and centre-left parties, certainly in Europe but also elsewhere. So whereas we used to go and examine what the German SPD did, now they are more likely to come and see what we're doing.

So I know in my own mind that the jibes aren't true. The only time they worry me is if I think that there's the ancient and very well-documented conspiracy between the Tory agenda and some on the left, telling people that the only type of politics that is radical is daft and, if you move away from that you have somehow betrayed what you believe. Which is extremely convenient for the Tories: you can be radical and unelectable, or electable but unradical, but you can't be both radical and electable - which, of course, is a nonsense.

He agreed with my suggestion that shadow cabinet life, with this small group of people linked claustrophobically together, was a little like 19th century shipboard life.

I'm pretty close to most members of the shadow cabinet. And we have a better shadow cabinet, in my view, than we've had at any point in time, certainly in my experience, in terms of its stability and capability.

What about the rows? Did they rebound back, amplified outside in the media?

Mostly not, though they can do occasionally. But what I always stress is, we've performed miracles in keeping what's essentially a hostile press off our backs. He added that things hadn't been as bad in the press as at some periods. But the press is still essentially hostile. If we'd ever behaved as the Tories have done in office - raised taxes massively when we'd promised we'd cut them, engaged in the most appalling sleaze, ended up with our entire economic policy collapsing, the worst recession the country had ever known when we'd promised a recovery - we'd have been drummed out of office by now. Literally, just castigated out of office.

It's true that much of the press is less slavish in support of the Tories, but, if we make even the smallest mistake, it comes down on us like a ton of bricks. You do have to be careful of it. But, on the whole, we've never done better.

What, I wondered, had been his high and low moments of the two-year leadership?

High moment? I think probably the ballot results on Clause IV, because that showed me what I intuitively thought but wasn't sure of: that the Party was actually behind change. Low moment? There was a long pause before he named the affair over Harriet Harman's decision to send her child to a selective school. Because, in previous Labour cabinets, you had large numbers who sent their children to private schools, and in Tory cabinets, running the state education system, the vast bulk of them sent their children to private schools. Though I understood all the difficulties it caused, I just felt that it was a bit of an overreaction, was out of proportion.

I asked him how well prepared for government Labour were.

Better than we've ever been. It's been a hard process, an extremely hard process, because in these two years we've reconstructed the Labour Party's organisation, its membership has virtually doubled, its policy-making has changed - and will change further - trade union sponsorship has ended, our relationship to the unions themselves has been put on a more sensible footing, and the constituency party now has the majority votes at the party conference.

We've put different dividing lines down between ourselves and the Government. On Northern Ireland, we've been bi-partisan. In education, we're modernising the comprehensive system and not returning to the 11-plus. In the health service, we want to get rid of the internal market of the Tories. Crime - tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. On industry policy, we've put together a whole range of different policy positions.

I think the key thing is, we've got a programme which I can actually deliver upon in government. You see, I remember going through the last two general elections, and there were all sorts of policies we had that the leadership collectively didn't want. I remember, during the last general election campaign, the pledges we had on child benefit. We all knew that by then the economic circumstances had changed and these were pledges that it really wasn't sensible to hold to, but the outcry of the party was going to be too great to change them. And yet that gave birth to the shadow budget, which gave birth to an election, which we fought around the issue of tax, in which the Tories were able to misconstrue and misrepresent our policies and persuade people that taxes were going to go up massively under Labour.

Now we aren't going into the election with those difficulties. The next task - and this is the final bit the manifesto puts in place - is to say that this has not just been about stripping away outdated ideology and transforming the Labour party. There's a serious programme of transformation for Britain: economic modernisation, the creation of a modern civic society, opportunity and responsibility going together, decentralising politics, improving Britain's standing in the world by altering our relationship with Europe. I can deliver this programme.

Some people have said, fine, but what will actually change in Britain under Tony Blair? Will there be any noticeable difference three years into a Labour government?

Well... This is crazy stuff, really, when people look at it. It's true that we're not, as a party, proposing a revolution, but then the country is not asking for that. But there is a substantial programme of reform without any shadow of a doubt at all - in economic and industrial fields, in the workplace, in the health service, in education, in constitutional change, and in our relationship with Europe. In all these areas, there is a lot of change being proposed and, if at the end of that five-year period of Labour government, we have made substantial progress in extending educational opportunities, put in place a proper reform - the foundation, at any rate, of the modernisation of the welfare state, a proper modern partnership between Government and business; substantial progress in our role in local government and altering our relationship with Europe...''

Charging through what is becoming a familiar-sounding list, Blair then suddenly stopped and let the frustration of Opposition politics show through.

The bane of your life in Opposition - it was an Israeli politician who said this, I forget which - the difference between Government and Opposition is that in Government you wake up every morning and say, what shall I do? And in Opposition you wake up every morning and say, what shall I say? And the problem is that it is never more interesting for people to cover what the Labour party is saying than what it will actually do. And the only test of this will ever be when you get into Government and do it.

Sitting there now, how sure was he that he was actually going to make it?

Well, I'm never certain - I don't take it for granted. But, if we unite behind the programme that we've got, then I believe that we'll win. But I never take it, for a single instant, for granted. And the Conservatives are a very ruthless, very unprincipled political machine. Their one chance is to have the Fear factor knock out the Hope factor. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen