If on the eve of the 1997 election Tony Blair had been asked what he would have achieved after a seven-year premiership with a majority of 160, he would have given a confident reply. The British constitution would have been radically reformed, as would the public services, and Britain would have joined the euro.
Seven years on, euro membership is as far away as ever. Public service reform turned out to mean tax and waste, with ministers pouring water into leaky buckets. But those in charge of the public services were intellectual giants in comparison to the constitutional reformers. There, Mr Blair set about dismantling the existing structures without knowing how to replace them.
Constitutional matters are now in the hands of Charlie Falconer, one of Mr Blair's old flatmates. Caligula made his horse a consul. Tony Blair made his flatmate a minister. The horse did less damage. Mr Blair ennobled his good friend, who should have called himself Lord Crony of Dome, because he was supposed to be competent.
Of that, there has been no evidence. Nor does Lord Crony possess political skills. He used to be a genial fellow but, these days, that is less apparent. Perhaps the geniality has been eroded by failure, though becoming Lord Chancellor did not help. When Charlie Falconer took over Derry Irvine's job, he also acquired some of the former lord chancellor's pomposity.
Anyway, fresh from his triumphant handling of the Dome, the Lord High Crony has now moved on to the constitution. If he has his way, the British constitution too will be a derelict building which nobody wants.
All Tony Blair's grand projects have ended in fiasco and there is only one person to blame: Tony Blair. I cannot think of any politician in any country who comes close to his record. No one has squandered so much political capital in such a short period. For six years, Mr Blair dominated the British political landscape. He had a docile party as well as an electorate that was willing him to succeed. No longer: in party and country, there is widespread cynicism. Though Mr Blair may remain in office for some time yet, he will never recover his political authority, and he has a further problem.
For six years, the Conservatives were adrift. The electorate was not willing to listen to them and they seemed incapable of coherence. All that has now changed, and parliamentary performance suddenly seems to matter more than it did. William Hague often got the better of Tony Blair; much good it did him. The voters did not seem interested. Michael Howard has been even more effective at Question Time than Mr Hague was. So far, he has not lost a single bout, and the voters are more interested. Mr Blair's defeats are undermining his standing and his confidence.
I ran into Mr Howard last week at a party. He was at ease, enjoying himself. The man and the hour have come together. That is no longer the case in Number 10. Mr Blair is not looking well. Like a lot of men whose fathers were struck down by serious illness at an early age, he is sometimes oppressed by the passing of the years. He is also obsessed by the need to earn real money. I have heard the same story from a couple of people who have dined with the Blairs over the past year. Late at night, they both complain about how little money they have. This difficulty may arise from their social milieu. When not consorting with lifestyle gurus, they are increasingly drawn towards international white trash: the sort of people who would never dream of taking a scheduled flight. So the Blairs feel poor.
But Mr Blair has no intention of leaving office yet. He is determined to earn his place in history. Yet that is an elusive goal and longevity alone cannot guarantee success. Even if Mr Blair served for 11 years, that, in itself, would not turn him into a second Margaret Thatcher. He could end up as a second Henry Pelham.
Lady Thatcher was once asked what she had changed. The answer was terse: "Everything." Though she was exaggerating, it did reveal the scope of her ambitions; a scope Mr Blair shares. That is the end of the comparison. Lady Thatcher had the intellectual tenacity to tackle big problems. Mr Blair does not. She had convictions. He has poses.
There is one exception. If Mr Blair wanted to rebut the charge that he has never been a conviction politician, he could always cite Iraq, where he did act out of conviction because he came to share George Bush's desire to reshape the Middle East. But there is a difficulty. Mr Blair was not willing to share this conviction with the British people.
What an irony; in domestic politics, his claims to be acting out of conviction have proved fraudulent. He was merely a conduit between the focus groups and the headlines. But when he did act out of conviction and moral principle, he lacked the courage to say so. He lied to the British people: an unforgivable breach of trust.
Prime ministers can use the royal prerogative to send British forces into action. It is an awesome responsibility which cannot be shared, especially in an emergency. Then, the PM must be an autocrat. But one thing can and must be shared: the truth. The nation is entitled to know why its troops are in conflict; nor need any responsible premier shrink from confiding in it.
Churchill often said that he was merely the lion's roar; the lion was the British people. Though we British have never been a militaristic race, we are a warlike one. We take pleasure in our troops' successes; we respond to the inevitable casualties with stoicism. Yet Mr Blair decided that this mighty people could not be trusted with the truth: the autocrat as weasel. We knew that he was uninterested in British history. We now know how little he understands it and the tempered steel of the people who made it. Place in history? No one can earn an honoured place in British history by lying to the British people.
Over to Lord Hutton, who is expressing surprise, and suspicion, at the failure to take proper minutes at No 10. His report could inflict fatal damage on Mr Blair's reputation. We can assume that his Lordship will examine the conflicting accounts of the decision to release Dr Kelly's name. Mr Blair's version cannot be reconciled with that of Sir Kevin Tebbit, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence.
It is inconceivable that Sir Kevin is lying or mistaken. Mr Blair has assured us that he stands by the totality of his remarks. What on earth does that mean? Totality: could he have been thinking of totalitarian, and his real plans for the British constitution? If Lord Hutton concludes that he was not telling the truth, the PM will need more than a linguistic parachute.
At Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Blair looked shifty. From now on, he may be doomed to look permanently shifty. In 1997, exalted hopes; in 2004, a stricken weasel.Reuse content