Eighteen months to go....
Saturday 18 November 1995
I learned more about Tony Blair's character watching him on the news for ten seconds, heading a football back and forth with Kevin Keegan, than I'd learned in a year writing a book about him. The intense concentration on his face, staring eyes, open mouth, every muscle in his body taut, utterly focused on heading the ball back to Keegan. It said, "this is a man who takes himself seriously".
It was "only" a photo-opportunity. But photo-opportunities are important in politics. And Blair takes every aspect of politics seriously. Remember how Neil Kinnock, the new leader, fell over on Brighton beach 12 years ago and threw away votes with a crude gesture to the cameras? Blair had just been elected to parliament then. Now, only 18 months from his one chance of power, his determination and extraordinary self-control are devoted to that gap between cup and lip.
He has long been acutely conscious of how others see him. Perhaps because he was unhappy to begin with at his Scottish boarding school, he developed a protective shell. "He was so affable you couldn't call him reserved, but you never saw his real self. He didn't like to expose himself in case someone spotted a weakness," says David Kennedy, one of his masters at Fettes. "He has always been conscious of how he appears to other people, the facade is always there. Don't forget that he was a superb actor."
Blair is not a careerist, though. He is not simply an ambitious politician, a skilled communicator and a practised media manager - although he is those as well. He is a sincere Christian socialist, who came into politics to "make a difference", to apply moral principles to social change. But he is inarticulate in describing his vision of a better world, and seems embarrassed by his youthful idealism. Asked five years ago why he wanted to be a politician, he said, "Well, I suppose you could go into all the slightly twee motives. I suppose you just look at the world around you. Think things are wrong. Want to change them."
Those abrupt sentences make clear that the "real Blair" did not want to expound - or maybe even examine - his deep beliefs for fear of becoming vulnerable.
His Christianity is an important, but essentially private, aspect of his character. Important enough, as the long-haired lead singer of a rock band at Oxford University, to go to see the college chaplain and ask to be confirmed in the Church of England. And he still plays the guitar - not an electric one - in his local church services.
Blair left university determined to become an MP, although at the time only one or two close friends knew. Later it became clearer: when he was elected secretary of his Labour Party branch in Hackney, a fellow member spotted a "glint in his eye - I realised that here was a very ambitious man".
In his quest to become prime minister, Blair's self-control never weakened, his guard never dropped. Picking his way through the ideological minefield of the Labour Party in the early Eighties, hardly leaving a footprint, he changed as the party changed.
And he chose his allies well: first Gordon Brown, with whom he formed one of the most successful partnerships in recent politics; and then Peter Mandelson, whose advice on news management and political tactics is paramount.
But the "real Tony Blair" remained obscure. Even now, although he is filmed and photographed constantly, gives hundreds of interviews every month, had his wife and children and father pushed into the unforgiving lights of the media, his essential self is inaccessible. Before party conference, Peter Marlow, a photographer, was given "exclusive access" to the man (not his family) over ten days in a Hollywood-style public relations deal. To secure this access, Marlow's agency, Magnum, agreed that Alastair Campbell should vet the pictures before they were sold to newspapers. Campbell did not in the event object to any, and the revealingly unrevealing photographs were bought by the Mail on Sunday for an estimated pounds 10,000. They showed Blair eating while talking on the telephone (Heinz ketchup bottle prominently mid-foreground); on a mobile phone on a train; and playing tennis. (The newspaper, to its credit, made clear a deal had been struck, although it meant rubbishing its own pictures: "The Labour Leader's Life - As He Wants You To See It.")
The personal tastes of the Blairs are not easily discerned. The house in Islington is large, but Blair himself is not obviously posh. No one is ever allowed to film in the house, except in the formal sitting room, which is devoid of any personal effects. When Blair was a new MP and still living in Hackney, the local MP, Brian Sedgemore, went to a party at the Blairs. When he commented on the flowers on the mantelpiece, he was surprised to be told they had been done by a professional flower arranger. "I'd never met anyone before who used a professional flower arranger," he says. Blair's taste in casual clothes is unplaceable: pressed black jeans and lumberjack shirts, or shorts, sandals and cheesecloth shirt. At Labour conference two years ago, he combined the black jeans with a lurid green jacket, despite the attentions of Anji Hunter, his forceful and smart assistant.
Whereas Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock were all warm characters, there is a coolness and reserve about Blair. He does not get angry, he gets cross.
The seriousness, determination and urgency of his make-up only gradually became apparent as he neared the top of the Labour Party. After Labour's fourth defeat in 1992, he scarcely concealed his impatience with the party and with John Smith. The young man was in a hurry. Alastair Campbell, then the political editor of Today, but already unofficially Blair's press secretary, wrote of the divide in the party between the "frantics" and the "one more heavers".
Smith made a convincing case for a period of calm and unity, while the Government disintegrated. But when Smith died and the leading "frantic" took over the leadership, Blair set a jolting pace and showed that changes few believed possible could be driven through with the party's support. Within nine months, Blair had changed the constitutional aim of the party from "the common ownership of the means of production" to a dynamic economy powered by "the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition".
Not only that, but he changed party policy on tax, inflation, the minimum wage, the single European currency, exam league tables, grant-maintained schools, Northern Ireland, elected regional assemblies and the House of Lords. And that was just the first nine months, while he was also fighting the battle to rewrite Clause IV. Every single change moved Labour closer to the Conservatives. But the Labour Party cannot say it was not warned. It elected him because he was the one who frightened the Tories. He has always made clear his aim is to win the centre ground of British politics. Most Labour politicians say the same thing, but only Blair can claim really to mean it. The endorsement of Labour as the "One Nation" party, first by Lord (Ian) Gilmour, a wet Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, and now by Alan Howarth, the first MP to defect from Tory to Labour, would have been inconceivable under any other leader.
Harold Wilson famously compared the Labour Party to a vehicle. "If you drive at great speed, all the people in it are either exhilarated or so sick that you have not problems. But when you stop, they all get out and argue about which way to go." So expect no concessions to Labour's passengers who are beginning to feel car sick. Complaints about fresh-faced spin doctors and policy wonks who think Ramsay MacDonald is a hamburger chain miss the point. The charmingly thuggish Alastair Campbell and his fierce assistants are not freelancing, they are doing what Blair wants, enforcing the "unitary command structure leading directly to the leader", as outlined in the embarrassingly candid strategy document leaked two months ago. There will be no let-up between now and the election.
But when I said Blair was ambitious, I meant ambitious. He is not just interested in the next election. More of his attention now, is focused on the one after that. He is all too aware of the lessons of Bill Clinton, who ran a brilliant campaign and then brought in a different team to make a mess of government. He is all too aware that his government would be the first this century to contain no one with Cabinet experience (even in 1924, Arthur Henderson had served in the wartime coalition). So off to Templeton College, Oxford, go batches of the Shadow Cabinet, to be lectured about red boxes by retired civil servants, and taught the science of "managing change in large organisations" by business school gurus.
And there is a sense of earnest about preparations for government which was curiously lacking before the 1992 election, even though nearly everyone thought Labour would at least form a minority administration. Blair is not promising much, but the few policies which remain are beginning to look as if they are ready to be turned into legislation.
But what is the plan for government? "I make no apologies, as I have done within my own party, for saying to people that an incoming Labour government is not going to revolutionise society overnight, or [have] some grand programme, in the first hundred days, [where] you do these 30 or 40 things," he said earlier this year in a radio interview with John Humphrys. "I think that type of politics usually does end in tears. What I do say to people is that we need to rebuild this country, economically, socially, democratically. And we put in place piece by piece the building blocks of that over time, and that we take people with us and we develop an understanding of the direction and purpose that we've got for our country, and we make no secret of the fact that some of these things take time to work."
If this sounds uncomfortably like Peter Sellers' satire of the simple gardener who becomes a presidential candidate - "We must build, but we must build surely" - then wait, the preparations for office are not finished yet.
Blair would, I think, be an effective prime minister. He has a quick mind and makes firm decisions - although he is good at putting them off if they do not need to be taken, Some who have worked with him say he responds badly to pressure, describing him as "petulant" and behaving like a "spoilt child" when criticised, with a tendency to exaggerate - "it's all terrible" - when he suffers a minor setback. He did not, for example, take the summer sniping from his own backbenchers well. On holiday in Tuscany, he read the British papers every day and was constantly on the telephone, at one point authorising a statement dismissing charges of autocracy as "silly season stories". But on the whole, he has already established himself as a strong leader, combining a fierce determination with a sound strategic sense.
However, Blair must know that a government of competent administration - however refreshing - would not be enough to win a second term. And I genuinely do not believe that Blair wants to win power simply in order to sit in Number Ten like a tourist so that he can tell his grandchildren, "I was there".
So there would be radical changes, which would upset a lot of people, and we are beginning to see what kind of programme might emerge. They would not be the kind of changes, to state the obvious, traditionally associated with the Left in politics, and many of the people who would be most upset may well be members of the Labour Party. Blair is quite serious, it seems to me, not just about himself and winning power, but about his language of "community".
Community is a soft word, but when Blair talks about strong families and people's responsibilities to society, there is a hard edge. Expect a Blair government to take a sharply moral line on parent's duties to their children, and to insist that both the very rich and the unemployed give back more to society. Children too, can expect a tough time from David "the beak" Blunket, who declares in his recent memoir: "Yes, I am a fundamentalist when it comes to education: I believe in discipline, solid mental arithmetic, learning to read and write accurately, plenty of homework, increasing expectations and developing potential - all the things which are anathema to modern children."
The Conservatives have consistently ducked "workfare" - demanding that people work or learn in return for welfare benefits - because it is expensive in practice. But last week, Gordon Brown sounded surprisingly confident with the stern moral tone of his plan to "require" youngsters to choose between four worthy "opportunities" or face a pounds 17-a-week cut in their benefit.
There is a big change going on here, and it is not clear where it might lead, except that there will be no fun under a Labour government (with a bit of luck they might close the theatres and abolish the Lottery). But what I call "social moralism" is emerging as the Big Idea. Philosophically, Blair disagrees with the libertarian idea of individual fulfilment - we only fulfil ourselves through others, he says. It sounds well meaning enough, but it implies real duties which will have to be enforced
'Tony Blair' by John Rentoul is published by Little Brown at pounds 16.99 Spinning it "He's got a very suitable short temper which I regard as essential for the job." Thus said Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's press secretary, on Alastair Campbell, the man who could succeed him in Downing Street 20 years later. Campbell heads a pack of Westminster press officers who face their Tory rivals with overwhelming force, and reinforcements are due to arrive shortly from Labour HQ in south London. Not only does Blair have three full-time press officers but, since 1993 G ordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, has had one, and now deputy leader John Prescott has one too. They are needed because political coverage has expanded to fill new outlets. Campbell's assistant, Tim Allan, spends much of his day saying "No" to people. He has a pile of requests for interviews on his desk that is a foot high. Campbell tours the journalists' offices behind the press gallery every day, a practice started by the Labour Party's chief spokesman, David Hill, when he was adviser to Roy Hattersley, then deputy leader, in the Eighties. "I didn't even have a pass for g oing up there," says Hill, "but the journalists found it useful, so I never got thrown out. Very often it's about being around - if you want to project a story, help a story, kill a story, you need a regular presence." Campbell bullies and negotiates, using information as power. The moment Alan Howarth, the Tory MP, told his Labour "pair" Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking, that he was thinking about defecting, Blair's office was in control of both the time and the place o f his bombshell. They timed it for the Sunday before Conservative conference, and placed it in the Observer - because Blair wants to maintain good relations with a paper read by his party. Meanwhile, junior spin doctors were put to work drafting articles in Howarth's nam e for the tabloid press. Blair is certainly one of the most media-aware politicians. This is often misunderstood to mean that he is a puppet of the spin doctors. On the contrary, it means he has greater control over them because he understands completely what they are doing and why. Campbell is powerful, not so much because he tells Blair what to do, but because he acts with his direct authority. Hugh Colver, the Tory media chief, quit last week saying he wasn't a "political propagandist" and blaming ministers for public relations "disasters". Campbell was always proud to be called a propagandist, as a journalist on the Mirror and Today, but there is more to the success of Labour's machine than that - the key is the fusing of Labour politics and presentation, from the top downwards.
MAKING IT ..TEXT : There is a small group of leading politicians who will form the core of the Cabinet if Labour wins the next election: Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer; John Prescott (below), job to be decided; Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary; Lord Irvine , Lord Chancellor; Donald Dewar (above), chief whip; and, in time, Peter Mandelson. Mandelson is currently number four in Prescott's team and hence, as one wag put it, deputy deputy deputy deputy leader of the Labour Party. But perhaps the pivotal figures in the run-up to the election will be Brown and Dewar. Both conceal sharp political minds behind dour Scottish exteriors. Brown remains the most powerful person in the Labour Party apart from Tony Blair, by virtue of his long relationship with the leader. That relationship has clearly been deeply affected by the painful process of agreeing that Blair should put himself forward for the leadership last year. The scars still hurt, although the friction is transmitted through proxies. Charlie Whelan, Brown's press officer, enjoyed the unusual experience of being summoned to Blair's presence to be personally "exonerated" of the charge of leaking the memo written by polling adviser Philip Gould which said Labour was "not ready for government". And some of Blair's partisan Labour MPs were outraged on their leader's behalf that Brown urged some of his supporters to vote for "Old Labour" Tom Clarke in the Shadow Cabinet elections last month. Nevertheless, not only does Brown have a stranglehold over Labour policy, because he controls the purse strings, he is in a central position in charge of day-to-day political tactics. The "daily news management meeting" meets at 8.45am in the shadowChan cellor's office across the road from the Commons, and decides the lines for the day and for the twice-weekly Prime Minister's Question. Dewar is the only other politician regularly to attend. Two recent themes, the Tory "lurch to the right"and "what have the Tories got to hide?", came out of those meetings. "Some journalists complain about all Labour MPs asking the same question at PMQs," says one insider, "but the message doesn't half get th rough." Dewar, the new chief whip, makes an unlikely Francis Urquhart. He is given to the gloomy pessimism you would expect from his stern appearance, and to a dry wit you might not. He described his friend Brown's bitterness at being forced to withdraw from the Labour leadership contest last year with mou rnful understatement: "He's not sunny. Which of us is?" Dewar's appointment marked the end of a struggle behind closed doors by the new leader to break the power of the old whips' office over the way in which the parliamentary Labour Party was run. For the first time, it brings the political battle in the Commons into the "unitary command structure".
The left-wing Tribune newspaper accused Tony Blair and his supporters of conspiring to use the apparatus of the Labour Party as a host body in which to grow a parasite which is, in effect, the SDP in another form. They were not far off the mark: at one point, even after Blair became leader, one of his closest aides speculated privately about the possibility of setting up a "parallel party" alongside Labour, because he was so frustrated by party rules and bureaucracy which seemed to obstructthe recruitment of a mass membership. Now that the shell of the old Labour Party has been cast aside by a renamed "New" Labour, many of the previous inhabitants are deeply unhappy. Arthur Scargill says he's off to set up the Socialist Labour Party, which "would be able to galvanise massoppo sition to injustice, inequality and environmental destruction" without the tiresome need to win elections. But Tony Benn, standard-bearer of left-wing revolt in the Seventies and early Eighties, says "socialists" should stay in the Labour Party and wait for events to prove them right. For some of them, there does not seem much point - Liz Davies, for example, can be a member of the party but is not allowed to be a candidate for parliament. "Old Labour" sympathies are not confined to the hard left, however. The grass roots remain distinctly ambivalent about the Blair revolution. "We knew we'd voted for the man who could beat the Tories, but that doesn't mean, well, Tories voting for us, doe s it?" Over the summer there was a wider outbreak of unease, made worse by arrogant handling by Blair and his spin doctors. The dissident who mattered was Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader, who warned against "ignoring the poor" and maintained a steady hail of fire at Labour's evolving education policy. On his return from holiday, Blair sensitively described those who advocated a return to the old policies as in need of psychiatric help. He specifically excluded Hattersley from his strictures, but Hattersley took offence anyway, fighting back on behalf of "subversive RH Tawney readers". But Roy made the mistake of advertising in advance his attack on the party's new education policy in Brighton. This gave Blair's ally David Blunkett the chance to hit back with a blistering rebuke, through which Hattersley sat with a lengthening face in the MPs' pen on the conference floor. "Those who didn't come up with solutions shouldn't turn on those who have." A wounded Roy claimed Blunkett had accepted all his criticisms, which was patently untrue, and retired from the fray. He won't cause any more trouble before the election, because he is actually a devoted Blair supporter. There would be more trouble from the party if Labour gets into government. Although 100,000 new members have joined since Blair became leader, they seem - on the basis of this year's National Executive elections - to be very similar to existing members. The nightmare of the split between government and party that dogged Wilson and Callaghan in the Seventies will not be repeated, however. For one thing, the party structure has been utterly changed, with a provision for ballots of the entire membership on controversial issues. For another, John Prescott, the man close to the heart of the party, is no Tony Benn.
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