Nice guy, Tony. So why don't we like him?

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The Independent Online

In the abstract, Mr Tony Blair is undoubtedly likeable. He has most of the appurtenances of likeability in the early 21st century: tall, slim - now verging on the haggard - with a wide smile, lots of teeth and high cheekbones. Whatever his true state of health (a matter on which No 10 is understandably reticent), he is manifestly a person of great energy, now getting into aeroplanes, now getting out of them.

Winston Churchill and, after him, Harold Macmillan would often take to their beds, sometimes for the morning, sometimes for the whole day. No modern Prime Minister could do this. His officials simply would not allow it. Mr Blair is not exceptional by present standards. But he gives the impression of still, after six years, enjoying the whole performance.

He has not acquired the carapace of pomposity which is such a useful protection to those holding public office. He is still the same Mr Blair that we have always known: or, at any rate, the act is still the same: "Hi, I'm Tony, a pretty straight sort of guy. Trust me." Perhaps people no longer do, or not to the same extent. But the lack of public trust has not so far been consistently reflected in voting intentions as expressed by the opinion polls. According to those same polls, he remains the sort of person that their respondents would like to have as their friend. God help us all!

But there is a Blair paradox. It is that, likeable as he may be, he is not very much liked, and never has been, not even in those days before he had acquired his present reputation for twisting and turning. It is like an Oxford Philosophy question of the 1950s: "Blair is likeable but not liked. Discuss." There was a certain affection for John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, James Callaghan, Harold Wilson and Hugh Gaitskell. Indeed, with Gaitskell and Mr Foot alike, the affection turned into love in some quarters, tempered by contempt in others.

Lord Callaghan was a dignified Prime Minister and an even more distinguished ex-Prime Minister. He could give lessons in manners to both Lady Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath. But he had only three years at the top, difficult years, even though the wisdom of the wise then was that no woman would ever be able to take his prime ministerial comforts away from Uncle Jim.

Wilson, by contrast, dominated politics for 13 years, from his election as leader to his carefully planned resignation. He defined an era, much as Mr Blair has defined the period from 1994 to the present day. Wilson's reputation fell away after the devaluation of 1967. He likewise was seen as a twister and a turner. But if he was a rogue, he was a loveable rogue. He did not have many close personal friends, any more than Mr Blair has, but MPs would say: "Good old Harold. Typical dodge." No one talks like that about Mr Blair. "Good old Tony" is not part of the Labour lexicon. He is, or was, the man who wins elections so that the comrades can enjoy the sadly diminished delights of the Palace of Westminster. But then, Wilson was an election winner too in his time, with four successes out of five, though only one landslide.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of affection for Mr Blair is that he has never laboured in the political vineyard as his predecessors had. He has never been either a party comrade or a House of Commons man. Just over a year ago he was given the Spectator award as "Parliamentarian of the Year". This caused surprise at the time, accompanied by some inaccurate speculation about the reasons for the award. So, at the risk of violating the sanctity of Father Boris Johnson's confessional, it may be as well to supply the correct reason.

At first there was a movement towards giving the gong to Mr Gerald Kaufman. As one of the judges I piped up, saying that I had known Mr Kaufman for over 40 years and much admired his parliamentary gifts but that he was quite old and no longer a minister. Though I was not in favour of fawning on capitalists, I thought it only fair that the sponsors of the award, Zurich Financial Services, should have some more glamorous return on their investment. So Mr Blair it was, who had already made some speeches on Iraq. He was to make several more and, though they were a pack of lies, highly effective speeches they turned out to be.

For perhaps better reasons, the same award was won this year by Mr Michael Howard. His is the obverse of the Blair paradox. The phenomenon is the same but it is the other way about. He is not likeable but in fact he is widely liked, as much by journalists as by politicians, at any rate those of his own side. Even so, he seems gratuitously to have thrown away some of the goodwill that accompanied his assumption to the leadership.

It was a mistake to try to revert to a supposedly Churchillian system of opposition, with a small shadow cabinet. Mr Howard's appointees will be lucky to be given a glass of mineral water and a tuna sandwich. Churchill's lads used to have lunch once a week at the Savoy. And they would intervene in the House much as they chose. Nor did they have a whole lot of understrappers such as Mr Howard has appointed. Nor did Churchill risk making an enemy of the Damian Greens of his day by demoting them and giving them tinpot jobs.

Mr Howard has also made a mistake in appointing Mr Guy Black as his chief press officer, or whatever the post is officially called. I have never met Mr Black, but he is certainly not a House of Commons man: he seems to be more one for the quick fix than the long haul. I should have appointed instead some experienced lobby man or woman with a good reputation. Mr Howard's choice of Mr Black reminds me of nothing so much as Mr William Hague's appointment of Ms Amanda Platell; and we all know what came of that.

But for the moment, these considerations are outweighed by the Tory backbenchers' joy in at last having someone to cheer. Many Labour backbenchers would also have liked to cheer Mr Howard for his attack on Mr David Blunkett's scheme to put the children of asylum-seekers into care. Mr Blunkett is fast becoming a national disgrace, not so much because of this proposal - disgraceful though it is - as because of his observations on the guilt of the young Muslim of Gloucester, which should bring him straight before a judge for contempt of court.

Only six years ago we might have been saying the same about Mr Howard. And yet, in his numerous critiques of Mr Howard's ministerial record, Mr Blair never mentions his spell at the Home Office. Perhaps that is because Mr Blair by now thoroughly approves of it.

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