IN ITS review of the year, Newsweek magazine called 1997 a "political dawn" for Britain. Tony Blair was given the accolade of a full-page picture showing his triumphal entry into Downing Street to the cheers of admirers, young and old, celebrating his landslide election victory. He is an enduring image of the year.

How different it all seemed at the actual dawn of the year, in January. Labour was well ahead - absurdly ahead, the spin doctors said - in the opinion polls. It was difficult to believe that this lead could be maintained until the election, much less through it. The party's strategists believed they had done everything they could to assuage Middle England's anxiety about life under New Labour, but nobody knew that the voters meant what they told the pollsters. After all, they had fibbed before.

Mr Blair shared this mood of uncertainty. The Tories were taking a pasting over mad cow disease, parliamentary sleaze and divisions over Europe, but they were still the government - just, with a Commons majority more apparent than real.

John Major had control over the date of the election, and manipulated it for all he was worth to save his political skin. He hung on until there was no more time to cling to office, and embarked on the longest poll battle in living memory, hoping that exposure of Labour's policy would play into the Conservatives' hands.

It was a forlorn hope. If you travelled with Mr Blair it was abundantly clear that the voters wanted him. His media minders would say he was the People's Choice. For once, they were right. He was mobbed in Stirling, and suffocated with goodwill in Staffordshire. The people who stood out in the wind and the rain before 1 May wanted to shake his hand, catch his attention, even touch his coat. It was an extraordinary spectacle. He represented hope, a sense of change for the better. Even the banal election pop song, "Things Can Only Get Better", captured the spirit of the occasion.

Perhaps he should not have been so taken aback by the scale of his victory. On the whole, the people were utterly sick of the Tories and ready for change. It is fashionable now to argue that they have not got change - only more of the same. And, of course, it is true the Blair administration came into office pledged to keep to the Conservatives' public spending programme for the first two years of the parliament.

Yet so much has changed. Chancellor Gordon Brown has revolutionised the management of the economy, handing over control of interest rates to the Bank of England and introducing his welfare-to-work strategy financed by a tax on the excess profits of the utilities. Scotland and Wales have voted for limited home rule in referendums. An IRA ceasefire is in place in Northern Ireland, and all-party peace talks are under way. At the Home Office, Jack Straw is implementing the pledge to tackle youth crime. At education, David Blunkett is introducing reforms in the schools. A Low Pay Commission will soon recommend the level of a national minimum wage, and legislation is going through to make it a reality in 1999. The Government has declared its hand on the European single currency: support in principle, but no entry before 2002 and only then after a referendum. Work is beginning on reform of the House of Lords. These are not the actions of an "as you were" government.

The image of Downing Street has been changed by the arrival of a real family. With his wife, Cherie Booth, his two sons and daughter, Mr Blair has revived the family at the heart of government. So much so that his children were placed centre stage before an environmental summit, as a reminder to the politicians present to consider future generations. And a letter to Mr Blair from Simon Jenkins, a millennium commissioner, outlining what the millennium exhibition would mean for his children, is held to have converted the Prime Minister to the cause of the pounds 750m Greenwich Dome.

Naturally, there has been a downside. Labour's love affair with the well- heeled triggered the Formula One affair, which showed the party only too keen to accept a million pounds from the motor-racing promoter Bernie Ecclestone. "In exchange for what?" people asked. Formula One's exemption from the ban on tobacco sponsorship looked like a sordid trade-off, and Mr Blair was forced to apologise on television after the truth was chiselled out of his officials. Old Labour is not dead, we realised, when 47 MPs on the Government back benches voted against Harriet Harman's implementation of Tory cuts in benefit for single parents. And now there is the saga of Paymaster-General Geoffrey Robinson's wealthy offshore trust. The end of Labour's honeymoon has been written about so often it is hard to believe the electorate is still wedded to its decision of eight months ago.

This week Tony Blair can permit himself a mild self-congratulation. Not solely because IoS readers have voted him Man of the Year but because he has done what he said he would do, and looks set to deliver more. He asks to be judged on a full term of office, rather than on his first few months. His wish will be granted.

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