A great flirt falters: the Prime Minister can't charm us into war

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THE Prime Minister has woken up to the fact that a lot of people he thought of as friends are no longer all that fond of him. Not that this much matters - Margaret Thatcher was the more effective (and re-elected) for not giving a monkeys whether she was liked or not as long as we thought her government worked better than the alternative. Thatcherism was not dismantled by antagonism to it. It fell apart from a mixture of Maggie- fatigue and what the Marxists would call "internal contradictions".

The Tories are used to being disliked: it's practically part of the human condition for them. An acquaintance who worked in Central Office used to wait till the third date before he dared tell any woman his real allegiance. New Labour, on the other hand, has become psychologically dependent on being doted on, as well as voted on. Tony Blair set out to reassure and convince the electorate, but somewhere along the line, he decided that he also wanted us to love him.

Part of his charisma derives from the fact that the Labour leader is a natural political flirt. He likes nothing better than winning over those inclined to distrust him - hence his fondness for big business and the attention he pays to potentially hostile newspaper proprietors.

I recall complaining to him about some policy shortcoming or other. He fixed me with those candid blue eyes and said: ''But what more do you want me to do? I can only do so much at once, you know." It was the sort of semi-aggrieved, semi-persuasive tone more commonly associated with a domestic row. The required response is: "Oh Darling, I know you're trying really. It's me who's being too demanding. Of course I love you just as you are."

Remember the pre-election broadcast which showed Mr Blair in the back of a car telling us that he didn't much like politicians either? Apart from reminding us that there is nothing so false as cinema verite, it showed us that Mr Blair dearly wanted to be liked by the kind of people who don't like people like him. But government is a borstal of a place, and it brings out the snarling shin-kicker in even the mildest of its inmates. When we watch Commons Question Time these days, we see a proud, thin-skinned man, resentful of criticism who sounds more and more like the sort of scurvy politician we so badly wanted rid of when we voted for him.

In the last couple of weeks, I have sensed a heightened nervousness in Mr Blair's penumbra about the variety of people losing faith with what used to be called "the project". "Have we really lost the arts?" one nervous special adviser inquired, clearly hoping that he had just mislaid them. Chumbawamba's impromptu baptism of John Prescott symbolised the fact that cold water is being poured on the Government from a number of directions. Suddenly, there is greater cachet to be had trashing Mr Blair than gushing about him. Damon Albarn of Blur is to address Labour students with an attack on the Government's policy on tuition fees. The designer Wayne Hemingway has objected to the Prime Minister's presumption in telling us what Diana souvenirs we may tastefully have on our mantelpieces. (This was indeed rich coming from a man of Mr Blair's criminal record in the leisure-wear department.)

The spin-doctors tell us it's what "real people" think that counts. But the wiser ones worry not so much about the star-rating of the malcontents, but at the range of dissatisfactions. Might it be that the Blairite coalition is turning out to be very wide, but also very shallow?

Some seepage was of course inevitable. The 1997 election produced a lasting problem for New Labour in the form of a dislocation between the people who really won it for them - the 10.3 per cent middle-class swing in the marginals - and the highly vocal London elites who have a proprietorial feeling towards the party and expect it to conform to their likes and dislikes.

Against this background, another Gulf war was not what the PM needed right now. That does not mean that he is wrong to fight it. There are sound reasons for the centre-left to back military action. The opponents of a war have not come up with any credible alternative strategy for dealing with a dictator who is sitting on stockpiles of forbidden weapons, has already sought to seize control of the West's oil supplies and completes his villainy photofit by suppressing democracy, butchering his opponents and periodically gassing his own people.

But Mr Blair has not sold the policy well. By associating his support for air-strikes with personal support for President Clinton in a time of White House upheaval, he has been seen to be engaging in an act of mere chumminess. New Labour has expended its rhetorical ardour on the fantasy of a leading role in the EU and then ended up with a real leading role in an Atlanticist intervention without ever having told us why.

The language of inclusiveness, of reasonable solutions, is central to Labour's identity. It wraps the element of compulsion essential to the successes of Welfare to Work in the warm blanket of "tough love" and helping us "make the right choices". But it is not suited to the unpleasant though necessary business of explaining why we are prepared to do battle in a far-off country of which the nation knows about as much as it knew of the Sudetenland in 1938.

But where are the Blairites' consummate communication skills when they need them most? The cagey ultimatums of Robin Cook and plodding warnings of George Robertson have hardly added up to a coherent argument. Neither have Mr Blair's Clausewitzian lectures about why you go to war when you can't think of anything else to do.

The politician who has made the most eloquent case for intervention was an opposition backbencher called John Major who told the Commons that we were in "a miserable and dangerous situation", but that it was a dereliction to take no action because that would make the West co-responsible for future aggression by Saddam.

But it is Mr Blair who will have to live with the consequences, and they do not look inviting. Even if this operation succeeds, there will be no "Falklands effect". The goal is to diminish Saddam's ability to wage war by destroying Iraq's military infrastructure. That would be no small achievement, but it would not bring the Union Jacks out of storage.

Neither does the relatively small number of Labour dissidents represent how unhappy the party at large feels about this mission. It is not just the old CND brigades who object. New Labour has not yet thought much about defence and security policy. Instinctively, however, many Blairites prefer the solutions (or non-solutions) of international institutions to outright intervention.

Military action will signal the end of the already frayed alliance between government and some of its most cherished, sophisticated and opinionated supporters. Harold Pinter has already launched a pre-emptive strike on Mr Blair's support for the war, which ended with the sardonic reminder that he had been "chuffed to the bollocks" when Labour won. What chuffs Mr Pinter's bollocks cannot always be the foundation of government policy. That wasn't quite what Mr Blair meant by his "hard choices", but it might turn out to have been one of the toughest he has made.