Review of the year: The Prime Minister

He may be a winner, but Blair's legacy is likely to prove elusive
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has endured the most torrid and authority-draining year since he became leader of the Labour Party.

This seems a perverse conclusion at the end of 12 months in which he won a unique, third, election victory with a substantial majority. Unquestionably Blair has enhanced his reputation as an astonishing election-winner. But even this triumph was double-edged. The campaign that preceded the victory was bleak, with Blair's own personal integrity at its dark centre. Relentlessly and excessively the media brought up questions relating to his trustworthiness. The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, broke with traditional campaigning protocol and called Blair a liar because of what he had said in advance of the war against Iraq. Labour's private polling suggested that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown was more popular. Blair had no choice but to turn to this old friend to join him almost as co-leader of the election campaign.

The twin election themes - Iraq and his stormy relations with Brown - dominated Blair's year in a way that was Shakespearean in its ambivalent and tragic scope. In January the relationship between Prime Minister and Chancellor descended to a new and very public low when both held press conferences at the same time. Brown was in Edinburgh, where he outlined plans to tackle poverty in Africa, a notably prime-ministerial aspiration. The actual Prime Minister responded by staging his monthly press conference in Downing Street. Astute editors of the rolling TV news channels split the screens and showed the rival events simultaneously, obscuring the admirably progressive messages that both were delivering. Predictably, the competition for public attention was followed by an eruption of rival briefings between both camps. The year ended as it begun. Earlier this month the briefings from both sides over their differing approaches to pension policy were even more vitriolic.

The context of the row in January was deadly. Brown had been sidelined from the early planning for the election campaign. He believed, rightly, that those who had brushed him aside were making big strategic errors in their bid for a third victory. Meanwhile Blair sought to prove that he was still in charge. In particular he was determined to fight the election campaign on his terms so that he could secure a mandate for what he regarded as radical public service reforms.

The two titans put aside their differences during the election campaign. For different reasons both of them wanted to win big. Immediately afterwards the rapprochement ended. Once more they went their separate ways. Blair wanted to talk with Brown about long-term policy issues. Brown regarded any issue beyond the short term as his domain. He wanted to discuss when Blair would stand down, or at least announce a timetable for departure. Blair had no intention of taking part in such exchanges, planning to serve for several more years. Blair had become convinced, partly by his own instincts, but also because of the flattering proclamations of his increasingly evangelical allies, that only he could deliver the reforms to the public services and take on a reinvigorated Conservative Party.

Briefly, in the most extraordinary week of modern times, it appeared as if Blair would get the political space he desired and felt he had earned. During a few sweaty days of breathtaking energy and focus, he played a significant part in securing the Olympic Games for London, responded with a restrained articulateness to the bombings in the capital on 7 July, and presided over a partially successful G8 summit in Scotland. Subsequently there was much media comment that only Blair could rise to such occasions. There were giddy declarations that he should stay for as long as possible, even if that meant changing his mind about standing down before the next election. It was a view echoed by some ministers and Labour MPs. Blair's personal ratings soared.

The unusual political mood did not last for very long, and nor did Blair's restraint in relation to the London bombs. The day before he left for his summer holiday he staged a press conference in which he declared that, in relation to the terrorist threat, "the rules of the game had changed". Perhaps he felt genuinely the need to generate such a sensationalist and simplistic headline, but it was probably no coincidence that the Sun had been calling for a more dramatic response from the Government and protesting that senior ministers had gone on holiday.

The over-the-top press conference, largely unfair criticism about his attempts to keep his holiday location secret, and his decision not to attend Robin Cook's funeral, meant that the political atmosphere was entirely different when Blair returned from his holiday. Once more seething questions raged about how long he should remain in Downing Street. At the party conference in October the opening days were dominated by a familiar dance between Blair and Brown. In his speech the Chancellor announced provocatively that he was planning a nation-wide tour to assess the mood of the country. It would last for a year, taking Brown up to the conference next year, more or less the time when he would like Blair to outline his retirement plans. Blair followed the next day and got rave reviews for his speech in which he was equally provocative, revealing that each time he had instigated a reform of the public services he regretted not going further. This provoked another irrational eruption of machismo from ardent Blairites in which they insisted, once more, that they were the daring reformers stifled only by conservative reactionaries like Brown.

Quite often it is Blair who is the cautious pragmatist. Early in the year, for example, he rejected the proposals in the Tomlinson report for schools that would have radically changed the examination system. There was a pragmatic case for maintaining the status quo, but it still served as a reminder that, privately, Blair is not guided by "boldness". For yet another 12 months Blair protested too much in public about this boldness. Indeed, he did so to such an extent that he got himself into some unnecessary difficulties. The most important political event since the election was his defeat in the Commons at the hands of his own MPs. Opting to speak on behalf of the police, Blair sought new laws to detain suspects without charge. MPs rejected the proposal, his first defeat in the Commons since becoming Prime Minister. The defeat signified troubles ahead, not least when the Education Bill comes before the Commons early next year. Blair has spoken of the proposals in the bill in such messianic terms that he has alarmed his own MPs. His introduction to the White Paper would have delighted the Thatcherite guru of the 1970s and 1980s, Sir Keith Joseph. The actual proposals were less revolutionary and more cautious.

Some Labour MPs and much of the media have been wary of Blair's style of public advocacy since Iraq, the conflict that overshadowed his leadership for another year. Most days of the year there were new dark twists in relation to the war. During this year Blair sought to shape a domestic legacy, but this became much harder because of his adventures abroad.