After all these years, Mr Blair is still just a brilliant Leader of the Opposition

Tony Blair can seem like a cross between Jeffrey Archer and Princess Diana. Popularity is no cure for insecurity

During the week, chatting to one of Michael Howard's people, I wondered whether Mr Howard was doing enough to rise above the daily grind of opposition and establish his prime ministerial credentials. My mind went back to Tony Blair between 1994 and 1997: a paradigm of successful opposition leadership. In those days, one had the impression that poor John Major would be at his desk by 6am dealing with yesterday's unresolved crises, plus the ones that the new day had inflicted on him. The Blairites, meanwhile, could allow themselves another hour or so in bed before chuckling at the headlines over a leisurely coffee. Then Tony, Alastair and Peter Mandelson would decide over the phone how they could make Mr Major's Sisyphean rock even heavier.

I also recalled a conversion with Tony Blair in 1991, in which I said that he had had a good Parliament. He replied that though he had enjoyed himself, opposition was only a youth training scheme apprenticeship. He now felt ready for a grown-up job. Well, he had to wait another Parliament for that. When it came, it was a better one than he could have dreamt of in 1991. But he was wrong. He was not ready. As Prime Minister, he has never been anything more than a brilliant Leader of the Opposition, and this is becoming widely apparent. Even if the sorcerer's apprentice is now the sorcerer-in-chief, the spells no longer work. His control over his colleagues is not what it was.

Only a couple of years ago, the Blairites were talking about moving Gordon Brown to the Foreign Office. "What if he refused?" one would inquire. Prime ministers appoint the Cabinet, would come the answer. If other ministers don't like it, there's always the back benches.

Those days have gone. Gordon Brown is no longer sackable and other colleagues are demanding some of the licence which he has always enjoyed. Over the past seven years, Mr Brown has regularly vented his dissatisfaction with the PM; acting, in Alastair Campbell's phrase, "like an out-of-control colossus". Until recently, no other minister would have dared to imitate him. That has changed.

Peter Hain and Charles Clarke have always shared three characteristics: ambition, truculence and vanity. There is now a fourth: public fed-upness with Tony Blair over his change of mind on the EU constitution referendum. It has been reported that Mr Clarke gave the PM a bawling-out, and Mr Hain has done nothing to conceal his dissatisfaction. Both men had enjoyed expressing contempt for the idea of a referendum. Neither will now enjoy all that being quoted back. Tony Blair told friends that he knew that he would have to eat excrement for a few days. Messrs Clarke and Hain cannot see why they too should be condemned to the faeces diet.

But last week's dégringolade dramatised the PM's loss of authority; it did not create it. There are two basic and related explanations for the long moral failure of the Blair premiership. He did not know what he wanted to do with power, because he did not know who he was.

Previous Labour premiers were sustained in adversity by the belief that they were representing the Labour movement and the working class. Inasmuch as that was not the demographic majority, it ought to be a moral one (Margaret Thatcher felt the same about the middle classes).

Tony Blair had no such solid class basis. At times, that could seem like an advantage; he was happy to invite everyone into his big tent. But it was also a recurrent source of anxiety; what if nobody came? In that respect, Tony Blair can seem like a cross between Jeffrey Archer and Diana, Princess of Wales. It was only towards the end of her life that she became fully aware of her power. She realised that she could charm any living creature: man, woman or beast. But once she had entranced them, she did not know what to do with them. Popularity was no cure for insecurity.

Equally, I always felt that Jeffrey cut an awkward figure at his own famous parties. He would invite one-third of the Tory Cabinet on every one of the three nights, plus really important people such as England cricketers, and would provide wall-to-wall butlers and champagne. There, one might have thought, his duties as a host should have ended, and he could just enjoy himself. No guest would have any excuse for going thirsty or failing to find interesting people to talk to; if anyone had chosen to turn into a wallflower, it would have been their own fault. But Jeffrey could never relax. He would be upset because the Minister for String had failed to appear.

Margaret Thatcher would not have understood all that. I do not know what her favourite passage from the Bible is. I suspect that it would not be the Sermon On The Mount. It ought to be "I came not with peace, but a sword". If anyone had ever offered her a big tent, she would have hired it out to a boxing promoter. She did not want popularity. She wanted victory.

Tony Blair had an excuse for his worries. Unlike a lot of his colleagues who were still nostalgic sentimentalists, he knew that many of the changes wrought by Thatcherism were irreversible. There could never again be a governing majority for old Labour policies. He had to placate the England of the Daily Mail and The Sun. This led to constant strain. For obvious reasons, prison sports teams always play at home. New Labour had the opposite constraint. It was never allowed to play at home because Tony Blair did not believe that there was such a thing as a home crowd. But the PM is now exhibiting the tension one might expect in a sportsman who has always had to perform on enemy territory.

Indeed, Mr Blair often gives the impression of regarding himself as a burglar who has broken into a great house and then been mistaken for a guest. He is being regaled at table, but is no more capable of relaxation than Jeffrey Archer was. He is afraid that at any moment, the owners will rumble him and send for the police.

None of this means that he is bound to lose the next election; he is still a formidable Leader of the Opposition. But even if he won re-election, he would be in office, not in power; no longer a dominant figure, but a provisional one. There is increasing discussion of the circumstances in which he could quit office, and a lot of talk about his place in history. He used to believe that he could conquer history by great deeds. Now, it is more a matter of giving himself an excuse to go while the going is good.

As a schoolboy, Tony Blair played Captain Stanhope in Journeys End. The school magazine credited him with "febrile intensity, wiring himself into his ever-more circumscribed troglodyte world". In 1997, great hopes; in 2004, a febrile troglodyte - one suspects that this is an accurate guide to Tony Blair's own feelings.

Even at Mrs Thatcher's final party conference as Prime Minister, the audience was chanting "10 more years", and she was loving it. If anyone now offered Tony Blair another 10 years, he would ask Cherie to put in an immediate appeal to the parole board.

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