In his Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman creates an Oxford and a London. They have points of resemblance to the cities we know, but are fundamentally different. Tony Blair must be a Pullmanite. Yesterday, he was interviewed. After recent events, one might have expected him to sound like Miss Havisham. Not a bit of it; he was confident and assertive. He had work to do; he intended to lead his party into the May elections. He was certainly not ready to announce a departure date. It was a remarkable performance. Anyone listening to Mr Blair would have thought that he was still Prime Minister.
There are so many ironies. In the mid-Nineties, as the Major government crumbled, Tony Blair watched with incredulous amusement. Even before he was convinced that he could win a single election, let alone three, he was certain of one thing. No government he led would ever behave like that. He was right. It has been much worse. "History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
Mr Major could not impose his authority on his party. But to the very end, almost all his ministers took him seriously. There was a government; he was in charge. Today, there is no government and nobody is in charge. It is said that Mr Blair would resign if anyone in No 10 were charged over cash for peerages. There are ministers who are now wishing that the police would get on with it and bring down the curtain on the farce.
Tony Blair used to have the best political antennae in the business. So why is he almost alone in not realising that it is time to go? There are two reasons. The first is the No 10 machine. As it performs its duties with unrivalled efficiency and aplomb, it also acts as a comfort blanket to a PM in denial. "Oh, Prime Minister, Frau Merkel would like a word." "See if we can fit her in before the conference call with the President and Condi." There is a lot of that.
Back in 1985, during one of Mrs Thatcher's embattled periods, Alan Clark found a characteristic metaphor to describe her Downing Street. "It's like the Führer-bunker in March 1945. Everyone still has immaculate boots and uniforms. There's endless heel-clicking and Heil-Hitlering. Last place in the Reich where you can get a decent cup of coffee. And a hundred miles to the East, another armoured division has just been pulverised."
Alan was wrong. Mrs Thatcher recovered. Although she may have kept on the "fasten seat-belts" sign all the way, she completed that voyage. She was able to do so because she had substance.
That is why poor Mr Blair will never achieve his greatest goal: to equal and even surpass her. There is no substance. All he has left is longevity, his second reason for hanging around.
Yet even if Scotland Yard allows him to complete 10 years in office, longevity is not enough. It is true that most of the double-figure Premiers are names to conjure with; Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Gladstone, Salisbury, Thatcher. Lord Liverpool was far more substantial than Shelley and Disraeli would have us believe. We then arrive at Lord North, and Henry Pelham. Pelham was the most obscure long-serving Prime Minister in British history, and Mr Blair will not deprive him of that honour. Obscurity will not appear on posterity's charge sheet, even if Tony Blair does not end up in the dock. But his reputation will not scale the heights with Margaret Thatcher and the other paladins. It will subside in the silt with Pelham and North.
In 1914, the British Expeditionary Force set off in high spirits, singing martial songs, expecting to spend Christmas in Berlin. By 1916, most of those men were dead. As they trudged through the mud of Flanders, the successors were singing: "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here." For the BEF 1914-1916, read New Labour 1997-2007.
So why did the high hopes end in low outcomes? Much of the blame must fall on Mr Blair. He never thought his policies through. Until it was far too late, he did not understand how to use the civil service: how to be an effective Prime Minister. Although he kept on talking about reform, he never knew what he meant. He spent his first parliament reversing Tory reforms in health and education. He spent his second parliament reintroducing them under different names. He has spent all three parliaments pestering the professionals with paperwork and targets.
He did show some fixity of purpose in Iraq and in Ulster. Even so, there was the fatal lack of follow-through. On Iraq and the Middle East in general, a sceptical - indeed hostile - Foreign Office possessed an infinite amount of expertise and wisdom. But because the FCO did not agree with the PM, he stopped listening to it. A strong premier would have had the self-confidence to insist that officials helped him to implement the policy, even if they disliked it. Had that happened, Iraq might not have gone so wrong.
In Ulster, Tony Blair had his finest hour. Although the Good Friday Agreement was implicit in everything John Major had been trying to do, only Tony Blair could have negotiated it. Thereafter, however, there was no momentum. As a result, the moderate forces in Ulster politics were undermined. The best that we can now hope for is a coalition between Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein. That may preserve the peace. It is not a stable basis for democratic politics or a healthy society.
When it came to Mr Blair's domestic programme, there were no finest hours. He subjected everything to the needs of spin and headlines. Under any government, change creates problems. Those whose interests are damaged will feel the pain instantly, and protest. The ultimate beneficiaries, who do not see immediate advantages, will remain warily silent. So political courage is required; the kind of risk-taking and tough-mindedness that Margaret Thatcher always displayed. If she had ever been popular two years into a Parliament, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong.
Yesterday, there was a final irony. In a desperate attempt to preserve his reputation, John Reid declared that some sex offenders should be subjected to a lie detector. We can only suppose that Dr Reid is under so much pressure that he has lost all sense of the absurd.
This is no moment for anyone in the Blair government to raise the question of lie detectors. No doubt Commander Yates and his team would find them useful in searching for missing emails and tracking down paper trails. The question of lying under the Blair administration reminds one of the joke current in Harold Wilson's day. "How can you tell when Wilson is lying? Easy: whenever his lips move."
It is not yet true that every Blairite minister lies every time he opens his mouth. It is true that almost every time a minister speaks, he heaps more ignominy on an already contemptible government. It is time for them all to be gone.Reuse content