Alan Watkins: Enter the bar-room bully

At any moment, Mr Blair can convince himself of the truth of his assertions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had numerous gentleman friends and several husbands and clearly knew a thing or two (except about acting), once remarked: "Men who are macho aren't mucho." The last part of her observation does not apply to Mr Tony Blair. For that we have the word of Cherie, Mrs Blair, as vouchsafed to The Sun newspaper. I do not see how Mr and Mrs Blair can call for their privacy to be respected, as they occasionally do, when Mrs Blair sounds off to The Sun about their idyllic sex life. But that is by the way.

In his political life, however, Mr Blair is certainly macho. Last week he excelled himself, with unhappy - some, though not I, would say disastrous - consequences. He resembled nothing so much as the type of bar-room bully with whom I was familiar in my younger days.

There would be what the entire press now insists on calling an argument, not meaning the kind of discussion I used to enjoy sometimes with the late CAR Crosland but, rather, an almighty row, usually about nothing at all. "Go on, then," the bully would say, "let's see how tough you are. Hit me." Usually no one did hit him, and the evening would fade acrimoniously away. Sometimes, however - very occasionally - an even bigger bully would be in the company, who would take the original bully at his word.

Mr Blair found himself in this position last week. Nor was there any great mystery about how this came about. He said "Hit me" once too often. In his turn at Prime Minister's Questions and, later, in his tour of the television studios - for he was not present at the actual debate, which happened in between - he reminded me of his performance over Iraq.

One difference was that the preliminaries to Iraq lasted longer, weeks or even months, while the argument about the now rejected 90-day period of detention has gone on for a much shorter time, though it will not be out of the way until the New Year. The other difference was, of course, that on that earlier occasion the Conservatives were on his side.

But his own act has not changed. It is the same performance. As with the great music-hall artistes of long ago, the old tunes are the best tunes. There is, to begin with, the blazing sincerity. James Boswell once said to Samuel Johnson that, whenever David Garrick played a murderer, he felt like one. In that case, Johnson replied, he ought to be hanged after every performance. Likewise, Mr Blair has the ability to convince himself of the truth of whatever he is asserting at any given moment, and of the nobility and disinterested character of his motives.

This is the first element. The second is the calling in aid of dark and mysterious forces; of perils and dangers of which we are only intermittently and vaguely aware, if that. The third element of a Blair performance (though it is perhaps only an aspect of the second element) is that he and, even if to a lesser extent, his colleagues are in a unique position to know because of their sources of information.

In the Iraq war this function was fulfilled by the security services, whose intelligence turned out to be of less value than the expense-account lunches which had produced it. Today the same role is played by the police.

Nothing better illustrates the corruption at the heart of this government than the use it has made of the police in the past few weeks. It is not something that came in with Mr Alastair Campbell and went out with him, but is, rather, fundamental to Mr Blair's administration, part of its being. It is, admittedly, difficult to pronounce on the degree to which the police decided to lobby MPs through their own initiative and the amount of active encouragement they received from Mr Charles Clarke (who, in his readiness to take the blame which should be visited on Mr Blair, is surely in line for the Downing Street Medal for carrying the can under enemy fire).

The pressure had its funny side. A Tory MP of the old school, sitting down to his Sunday lunch, was surprised and a little annoyed to be interrupted by a telephone call beginning: "Hello, this is the Chief Constable speaking..." While it is perfectly in order for, say, pro- and anti-hunting groups to lobby MPs, the police are in an entirely different position. They are not a pressure group but an organ of the state operating under the law, which is made by Parliament and the courts, separately from them. Their role in the controversy was quite improper.

The attitude of liberal and enlightened persons to an awkward Commons is not altogether consistent. On the one hand, they want - or say they want - MPs to be more independent. But, on the other hand, when members show some sign of taking this to heart and acting accordingly, liberal and enlightened persons say that the end is nigh, government is becoming impossible and of course any Prime Minister must be allowed to get his programme.

There is a parallel here with nationalism in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Nationalism striving is regarded as admirable in its objects; nationalism gained is viewed as malign in its consequences. Papers such as The Guardian and The Independent, for instance, were notably severe with Sir John Major's rebels on the Maastricht Bill, because those papers approved of the treaty. In 1993, an important part of that treaty, the Protocol to the Social Chapter, was narrowly lost. The government came back to the House next day and restored it by means of a package containing a vote of confidence.

On Wednesday the Government did not try to follow a similar course. It would have won a vote of confidence, lost an attempt to restore 90 days but won a vote which cunningly combined both in Major fashion. Mr Clarke, to his credit, accepted both the rejection of the 90-day period and the substitution of a period of 28 days. Ms Janet Anderson's "loyalist" amendment of 60 days - which could have formed the basis of a prior compromise, if Mr Blair had been less wilful - was not voted on at all, because Mr David Winnick's amendment was passed first.

Prime ministers in Mr Blair's position have another possible wheeze: the threat to call a general election. Harold Wilson tried it when his position was being assailed in the late 1960s. Mr (as he then was) Major did the same during the Maastricht debates. One of his colleagues said then: "We wouldn't have let him get halfway down The Mall." Mr Blair's colleagues are mostly too timid to do likewise. But I cannot see him making the same threat - or not yet, anyway.