Twelve months later he's still man of the moment

In our final article, Colin Brown says that Tony Blair is putting a very personal stamp on his premiership
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TONY BLAIR was in a relaxed mood at the leaving party in Number 10 this week for Tim Allen, one of his press office team, who reflected on the "gaffes" of the year.

They included the report of the change in the Blair hairdo, a "scoop" for the Financial Times. Mr Blair could afford to enjoy the joke at his expense - by common consent, from his ministerial colleagues to his severest critics on Labour's left wing, he has had a remarkably successful year. "It has been Tony's year," said one.

Some of the "gaffes" were of Labour's own making, but Mr Blair has suffered no permanent damage from the presentational debacle over Bernie Ecclestone's pounds 1m and party funding. He successfully put that behind him and went on to speak for the country on the death of the Princess of Wales. He also captured the moment at the signing of the Good Friday settlement, which he had personally been responsible for brokering to bring the hope of peace to Northern Ireland.

It was not a moment for soundbites, he said. But he felt the "hand of history" on his shoulder. Those telling lines, delivered with an actor's skill, again captured the moment.

Cabinet figures dismiss reports that he has been humiliating some ministers in front of the rest of the Cabinet. "He doesn't do that. It's just not his style. He can be challenging, but he doesn't humiliate colleagues," said one senior Cabinet source.

"Absolutely outstanding," was how one seasoned apparatchik described Mr Blair's performance over the past 12 months. "He is an outstanding Prime Minister, probably better than Wilson and Macmillan and Thatcher."

"The only question is about his strategic view - we still don't really know where he stands, on the welfare state, Europe, or trade union recognition."

Mr Blair's close Cabinet colleagues deny that charge. One said he had made up his mind some time ago what the Government would be saying on trade union recognition; the ministers and the trade unions would follow. His friends say he has continued to lead from the front, exercising his authority on the Chancellor on the approach to the European single currency.

"I've seen them all - Wilson, Macmillan, Thatcher, Major - and he's right up there with them," said another veteran Labour left-winger. "He hasn't got Wilson's memory; he is a peace-maker, he doesn't go for the jugular, but he is brilliant at Prime Minister's question time."

Mr Blair was advised by one regular Labour voice at the weekly sessions of Prime Minister's questions to "lighten" his approach to William Hague. "He was sounding ratty, so I told him not to take Hague so seriously. It seems to have worked. He is much more relaxed now."

He was in the tearoom last week, jollying the troops after Prime Minister's questions. "They are in awe of him," said another Labour MP about the new intake of '97. Even some of the press who hounded John Major with tough questions find Mr Blair difficult to fault.

"He seems to be giving you the honest answer you wanted, but you have to listen carefully to the words. Then you realise that he isn't answering the question at all. He's just slipped off," said one television reporter.

Mr Blair has been keen to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors and has been assiduous in keeping close ties with the Labour backbench. Regular receptions at Number 10 for groups of more than 20 Labour MPs, hosted by Clive Soley, the chairman of the PLP, are not polite photo opportunities with tea and sympathy. "They ask tough questions," said a senior Labour source.

His candid, semi-conversational style in public is an important factor in convincing his own side that Mr Blair is sincere. "Even his harshest critics have a sneaking admiration for him," said another Labour MP.

In his next reshuffle, before the summer, he will promote the ministers he wants in his Government and sack the failures. That is when the country will learn more about the Prime Minister.