Bruce Anderson: Tony Blair, who so derided John Major, now seems doomed to suffer the same fate

The danger is that in discrediting himself he will also bring discredit on the political process
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The Independent Online

I have always held unfashionable opinions: one in particular. There were moments when it could have qualified me for a tripartite membership: the flat earth society, the Church of Scientology and the searchers for the Holy Grail. I have always believed that John Major was an effective prime minister.

The counter-inflation policy, the Maastricht Treaty with its opt-outs, the Northern Ireland peace process and the handling of the first Gulf War; that is a substantial corpus of achievement. We could add the introduction of market mechanisms in health and education. Though that was all discarded to the sound of trumpets in 1997, much of it has been subsequently and shame-facedly reintroduced.

In his diaries, Jock Colville wrote that Attlee and Alec Home were the only 20th-century prime ministers "who has no shred of either conceit or vanity". John Major was a third and that was part of the problem. All actors are vain. Prime Ministers need to be actor-managers. But he had none of those skills. He could never turn his record into rhetoric; he never succeeded in imposing his narrative on events.

How different from our own dear PM. He has never had a problem with rhetoric or narrative. But as neither of them bore any relation to reality, he was able to make it up as he went along, for 12 years. Now, finally, the whirligig of time is bringing in its revenges.

Back in 1995, Patrick Rock, a shrewd Tory observer and longstanding political adviser, told me something that I did not want to hear. You can have a prime minister who is hated or feared, said he, and there might be hope of recovery. But once a PM is despised, once people start laughing every time they hear his name, he is finished. Then, that was true of John Major. Now, it is rapidly becoming true of Tony Blair. He has lost the moral authority - God knows how he ever had it - to discharge his duties.

Last week, there was a trifling incident of resounding significance. A parliamentary private secretary (PPS) is a minister's unpaid assistant. With the right PPS and a sympathetic minister, it can be a valuable apprenticeship. But the post has its drawbacks. Though they have no ministerial pay, PPSs have ministerial obligations. They must vote with the government and they are not allowed to speak against the government. Above all, they are strictly forbidden to instruct the prime minister to resign. Yet Ashok Kumar did just that and he still has his job. Even in the Major government, hardly notorious for effective discipline, he would have been sacked before he had finished speaking. Hitherto a less than unobscure figure, Mr Kumar will appear in the history books: a moment in the moral and political disintegration of the Blair government.

No wonder the Brownites are so disturbed. They are desperate to take over the house but they do want it to retain four walls and a roof. As soon as he has the chance, Gordon Brown will do everything possible to differentiate himself from Tony Blair. He will assure the public that the outgoing premier's misdeeds are buried with him. But Mr Brown's friends are afraid that a prolonged period of public decomposition will discredit not only Tony Blair, but also the whole notion of a Labour government.

That is why many Brown supporters hate David Cameron. Not because he is a toff, nor even because they believe that he would destroy the public services; their real worry is that he is reviving the Tory party at their moment of maximum vulnerability, while that expletive-deleted Blair is hanging on and on, making the mess worse and worse.

But, even if you are not Gordon Brown, there are grounds for unease. The danger is that in discrediting himself Tony Blair will also bring discredit on the political process and on British defence policy. In 1997, even a partisan Tory who believed that Tony Blair's promises were fool's gold had reason to be thankful that their contemptuous views was not widely shared.

The Major Government was hooted out of office. Suppose that Tony Blair had rapidly gone the same way, as he deserved to. The resulting public disillusion would have been dangerous. No democracy can long remain stable if the voters despise all their leaders as a matter of routine. So it is just as well that the public took so long to see through Tony Blair. Even so, one of Mr Blair's few unchallengeable legacies is a significant increase in electoral cynicism.

There is another legacy which is equally dangerous. Man for man, our armed forces are the best in the world. But that great resource of national pride is under attack. Our servicemen are underpaid, overstretched, under-equipped and undervalued - except by lawyers who have come to realise they can grow rich by persecuting soldiers. The only part of the Ministry of Defence which ever seems to have any money is the legal department.

This is not only the politicians' fault. At this critical moment in our military history, we have generals who are as unfit to discharge their duties as any of their predecessors since the eve of the Crimean War. Instead of standing up for their men, they seem happy to help ministers to trash tradition and undermine morale.

All this has predictable consequences. Retention is suffering, depriving the army of trained NCOs and good young officers. Recruitment is at perilously low levels. If this carried on for another few years, there would be an inevitable outcome. Whatever the potential qualities of the British soldier, the British army would no longer be capable of high-intensity warfare.

This couldn't be put right without a new government and new priorities. That, in turn, depends on public support. I happen to believe that the Iraq war was Tony Blair's finest hour; his only fine hour. But he made a terrible mistake. He refused to take the British people into his confidence and to explain his policies. That breach of faith was tantamount to treason. As a result the danger is that many voters will come to believe that we are better off without effective armed forces, so that we could never again undertake an Iraq war.

The lion has not yet lain down with the lamb. If you listen to the sound of the world's armouries, you are not hearing swords being beaten into ploughshares. The world is as dangerous as it has ever been. Anyone who believes that Britain should face those dangers without effective armed forces should reread the history of the 1930s.

Tony Blair set out to be Margaret Thatcher mark two. The risk is he will end up as Stanley Baldwin mark two. It is to be hoped that the voters will not punish the armed forces for Tony Blair's moral failure. A man who derided John Major's decencies deserves no mercy. But our armed forces do. Unless they get it we all may suffer a merciless fate.