Can you recognise this man?

Reporters can approximate, commentators can speculate, editorials can equivocate, but cartoonists must get Blair bang to rights. By Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online
Cartoonists lost an easy target when Tony Blair became Prime Minister. John Major, immortalised by The Guardian's Steve Bell as a pathetic Superman wearing spotted underpants over a grey suit, was a gift. The big glasses, the protruding upper lip, the schoolboy haircut - they all lent themselves to ridicule. The new prime minister is not so easy. For one thing, no single symbol, such as the underpants, (what the cartoonist David Low called "a tab of identity") has yet emerged. Vicky, the Evening Standard's celebrated caricaturist, made Harold Wilson synonymous with his pipe within days of Labour's 1964 victory. Margaret Thatcher has her handbag. The long-haired Heseltine has his Tarzan gear. Doonesbury eventually replaced the entire figure of George Bush with a feather and Ronald Reagan was occasionally represented simply as an absence. But Tony Blair remains ill-defined.

Part of the difficulty is that early images of the Prime Minister, forged in opposition, now seem dated. Bambi, a picture of startled innocence, may have worked to represent Blair's sudden rise after John Smith's death. But Peter Brookes of The Times killed off the Disney character, when he drew him with blood dripping from his mouth, standing over the gored body of a rabbit (John Major). The Observer's Chris Riddell has also had to think again. "My first Blair," he says, "was thin-necked, with big ears in a huge double-breasted suit that was too big for him. John Major was saying that in 1979 the dead went unburied while Blair was saying he wasn't even born then. But this image is no longer appropriate. Blair has acquired a steeliness, a presidential air." Just as Margaret Thatcher evolved from blonde housewife with a shrill voice into the Iron Lady, so Mr Blair's progress is calling for new ideas.

"No one has yet got a handle on Blair, because everything has been so well managed that little of the personality has come through," The Independent's Dave Brown says. "It was the same with Major before he was PM. The drawings made him look young and dashing. His physical appearance didn't change much in five years but he became more more nerdy and hopeless looking in cartoons."

"We are entering a period when there will be more experimentation," says Robert Edwards, director of Kent University's Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature. "It feels reminiscent of when Clinton became President - it took some cartoonists a year before they could get to grips with his presidential image. For a long time, they were still drawing him with a saxaphone, sunglasses and that old Elvis haircut." A new Clinton gradually emerged, red-nosed, dressed in snorkel, goggles and swimming trunks, dogged by the Whitewater scandal, with Pat Oliphante, the American cartoonist, using the White House cat, Socks, in the corner of the tableau, for cynical asides.

Physically, Blair is not difficult to caricature, according to most cartoonists. Indeed, despite his meteoric rise, a few lines can already make him instantly recognisable. "He has sticky-out ears, receding hair, a flabby lower lip and those starry eyes," Steve Bell says. "That should be enough to be going on with." Like his rivals, Bell has focused on the Blair smile, frequently transferring it to his followers, giving the impression that New Labour MPs are a bunch of mindless Moonies following their leader's command.

But there remains a problem of what Blair actually stands for. In January Bell drew a blank space for Blair's head through which you could see blue sky, with the dark figure of Peter Mandelson peering through the gap. "The blank space most likely to

Additionally, Blair's obvious strength makes him more difficult to caricature because weakness is so much easier to lampoon. "Blair is a strong leader in the Thatcher mould, with a huge majority," says Chris Riddell. "So the way to approach him will not be to belittle him. You have to take him seriously. So you either have to portray him like the zealot Maggie or you have to think of something else. It's too easy to say Tony is a Tory. He's more interesting than that. He's changing all the time. I make a point of always keeping up to date pictures in front of me. I've noticed that lately he has developed more of a frown. His brow is more furrowed. He's not a carefree as he was. And his ears are becoming less useful. They say he is a callow youth, but now he's different. I'll keep watching and refining."

The seriousness of the Blair camp has persuaded Michael Heath to avoid the traditional large political cartoon in favour of a domestic drama, in the form of his Spectator strip, "the Blairs", a grotesque comedy featuring British politics' first family. "One of the reasons they are so funny is that they don't think they are funny," says Heath.

But the main recent development among cartoonists has been to seize on the Prime Minister's authoritarian tendency. Bell has detected a "psychotic glint" in one of Blair's eyes, recalling his Thatcher caricature. (Riddell gave Blair a handbag and a Thatcher-style bouffant in one drawing.) The Daily Telegraph's Nicholas Garland, whose literary references cast him as cartooning's Dr Johnson to the surrealist Bell's Magritte, is making a similar shift. "I've developed two aspects of Blair," he says. "One is the grinning look, which says, 'We are sensible, we can get on with the job.' The other is when he closes his mouth grimly. He almost purses his lips and the lower lip sticks out a bit. It's a harder side that keeps people in line."

Peter Brookes sees a sinister aspect. Last month, when the embassy siege in Peru ended, he drew Blair and Mandelson as terrorists who had taken the Labour Party hostage. Last Friday, he showed the Labour benches gagged. "I used to draw Blair with eyebrows up, looking eager. Now he has one eyebrow down, showing his authoritarian tendency. There is a menace there that was not there until the last year. His eye is not mad, just extremely authoritarian. Thatcher was mad, but Blair hasn't achieved that, yet, although megalomania isn't that far off."

A religious theme may well be developed, particularly as Blair is rumoured to be considering conversion to Catholicism. Garland has portrayed the leading members of the Cabinet as a group of Calvinist elders. And Steve Bell has redrawn a Hogarth print, inserting the faces of the Cabinet into a church congregation as a Methodist preacher (Blair) raves from a high pulpit. "Blair does have a slightly preacher, religious air," Bell says. "I've even heard him pronounce: 'And I say to you, my party'. He could turn into a priest."

Or a chance remark may in the end define him. Thus, it was that Matthew Parris, the parliamentary sketch writer, described John Redwood as a Vulcan and forever fixed his image in the public mind. Chris Riddell, in his frustration, says he has even taken to talking to writers about thinking up Blair's elusive but defining image. "If Simon Hoggart or David Aaronovitch can write it, then I'll draw it," he jokesn

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