Adrian Hamilton: Tony Blair is back - but where's he going?

He is determined to leave his mark on history, only nothing ever seems to happen
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The details may vary. The focus shifts from home to abroad. But the spin, and its promoters, remain the same. Tony Blair may have seemed embattled or weakened, but those ready to write off the Prime Minister are wrong. Their man has never been more energetic or more determined to leave his mark on history.

Only nothing ever seems to happen. Great new initiatives are announced, the Prime Minister does a rousing performance at a press conference and then? Well, not very much. A conference is held in London on Palestine and that's the last we hear of Britain's great new role in the Middle East peace process. The Prime Minister threatens to resign if he doesn't get his way on tuition fees and there it rests.

Does the man himself believe the guff as it is handed out to the tame political commentators? It's probably the wrong question. Blair's greatest asset is his ability to persuade, and for a persuader all that matters is that you believe it at the time. It's quite believable that Tony Blair doesn't even make up these narratives himself, that they're themes thought up by various staff which the Prime Minister catches onto as a useful story to tell.

That would certainly explain why the papers are full of stories about "radical reform" and "Blairism" while on the ground there seems no particular set of policies that adds up to such grand themes. The specifics - school academies, foundation hospitals and Asbos - are all the products of individual initiatives not the outcomes of an over-arching philosophy in the way that Mrs Thatcher's administration could be described.

Look at the latest round of "radical Blair prepares for action" stories. We are asked to believe that the rejuvenated Blair, no longer trammelled by the need to seek re-election, is going to put his stamp on the next two to three years by reshuffling the Cabinet to promote his favourites, introduce sweeping new reforms of the Health Service and education, revolutionise security and lead Europe on a great march towards Anglo-Saxon economics.

The structure of the story is always the same. First, a series of straw obstacles to action are set up, in this case a reduced majority and a decision not to stand in the next election. These are then demolished as factors now being swept aside in the drive to the new world. Then the argument is couched in terms of the continuing battle with the Chancellor, New Labour versus Old, and the Prime Minister presented as St George ready to kill that dragon. Out of this conflict, Tony Blair is represented as a real crusader, a man determined to make a new Jerusalem on this green and pleasant land and to bring a new world order outside.

It's all good theatre, but it breaks apart in your hands as soon as you touch it. Tony Blair is indeed a fortunate general in that events - the rejection of the euro-constitution, the chaos of the Conservative Party, the Olympic Games decision and the threat to security at home - have seemed to run his way.

But the fundamentals haven't changed. Iraq remains a bloody mess and, if anything, is getting worse, casting a pall over the Prime Minister's judgement from which he cannot escape. The struggle with his Chancellor remains exactly as it always had been, a stand-off, only Tony Blair appears crucially to have accepted the succession. The suspicion of his party, and its readiness to confront Blair, on specific privatisation moves is still there, only increased by the loss of Blairites in the last election.

Tony Blair is in no position to revise radically his cabinet and throw out the Brownites, even if he had the appetite for such a confrontation. If he had, we would never have had Gordon Brown's permanent secretary, Gus O'Donnell, appointed the new Cabinet Secretary. Nor, given the readiness of the opposition parties to consort with the Labour left to defeat measures, has he the authority to introduce sweeping reforms, should he wish to.

As for abroad, well Blair can make use of Britain's position as president of the European Union to gain the headlines. He may find new allies in Germany and France for economic change, but so long as Britain is outside the euro and locked in with the US on Iraq, he can't deliver much on the crucial issues of UN reform, the Middle East or European monetary policy, or act as a bridge across the Atlantic.

But does he really wish to? One of the great weaknesses of the apostles of "Blair the great reformer" is they assume that inside their leader lies a real radical waiting to burst out, if only he had the opportunity. But there's nothing in Blair's actions, rather than his words, to support such a theory. Rather the opposite. On the whole, Blair is a cautious politician with little appetite for confrontation and no great set of beliefs. He likes to wing decisions, which does make him a risk taker. But he's not a real gambler in the sense that he has a vision for which he is prepared to chance all.

He's good at the persuading part, and enjoys that. He's a considerable party tactician, and he knows that. But if there's never any follow through, it's for a good reason. Blair is not out to change the world, just to play a headlined part in it.