Mr Blair fears the voters are about to rumble him

When Middle England refuses to slag off the Frogs, we are in uncharted waters
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The Independent Online

Back in September, there seemed to be a number of possible outcomes to the fuel crisis. But they did not include ministerial complacency. Yet 53 days after the protesters announced their deadline, the Government has an air of smug confidence. It took time to persuade Gordon Brown of the need to make concessions. The Chancellor has vast reserves of stubbornness, and in early October, when his closest advisor, Ed Balls, was asked whether the pre-Budget statement would take place before the 13 November deadline, he dismissed the question: "That does not enter into our calculations."

Back in September, there seemed to be a number of possible outcomes to the fuel crisis. But they did not include ministerial complacency. Yet 53 days after the protesters announced their deadline, the Government has an air of smug confidence. It took time to persuade Gordon Brown of the need to make concessions. The Chancellor has vast reserves of stubbornness, and in early October, when his closest advisor, Ed Balls, was asked whether the pre-Budget statement would take place before the 13 November deadline, he dismissed the question: "That does not enter into our calculations."

Since then, the calculations have been recalculated. Mr Brown has decided on the obvious tactic to divide his opponents. On Wednesday, he will announce measures which will satisfy no one, but which will take enough heat out of the situation. In all this, he will have the enthusiastic support of David Handley, the militant fuel protester: the sort of opponent who politicians pray for. Publicity has gone to Mr Handley's head, which is easily led astray. He seems determined to blunder into every trap which the Government has set; this is a man who could make Pierre Poujade sound like Woodrow Wilson.

Despite some poll evidence, I also suspect that the protesters would be unable to win support on a September scale. The floods will have washed away the public's appetite for hardship. It would take exceptional clumsiness for the Government to be defeated in any re-run of the petrol protests, and this lot do not have the courage to be clumsy.

But September was a fascinating occurrence, which deserves to be analysed rather than forgotten. For a start, it took the entire political class by surprise. The Government and the Opposition looked equally flat-footed, as did most commentators, including me.

Yet we should have realised that something was up. When lorry drivers blockaded the Channel ports, the camera crews invited the trapped British motorists to vent their frustrations on the French. But they refused to do so; most of them seemed to think that the lorry drivers had a legitimate grievance. That should have set us all thinking; when Middle England refuses to slag off the Frogs, we are in uncharted waters.

So a spark from across the Channel turned into a conflagration. This was not just about fuel. It was further evidence of a dramatic change that has been taking place in Britain over the past four decades - the decline of deference and withdrawal of confidence in government.

That first manifested itself in the early Sixties, with the rise of satire and the decline of Harold Macmillan. The public suddenly discovered that it was no longer obligatory to respect its political leaders. Since then, with the splendid exception of Margaret Thatcher, that process has gained momentum.

Recent events have lent encouragement to mockery. Tony Blair has not run his Government in such a way as to increase public respect for government. One reason for Margaret Thatcher's success was her belief that she had no need to enquire about public opinion; she was public opinion. De Valera said that if he wanted to know what the Irish people were thinking, he only had to look into his own heart. Mrs Thatcher could have echoed his words about the English.

Her successor was never able to match that self-confidence; John Major's party deprived him of the opportunity to be a strong leader. That was one reason for Mr Blair's election; the public wanted a prime minister who knew his own mind and could impose his will.

But that is not how Tony Blair works. The most skilful manipulator of public opinion in British history, who has been far more popular than Mrs Thatcher ever was, he is still popularity's servant, not its master. Mrs Thatcher regarded her popularity as working capital, to be invested, often overdrawn, and even put in hazard. Mr Blair treats his as a miser treats his gold; it is to be polished, hoarded, constantly counted, but never exposed to risk.

This explains the PM's tense air even when everything seems to be going well. Though the public may be beguiled, he is aware of his own cynicism, and wonders how long the act can work. Mr Blair is like a burglar who has broken into a big house, bumped into the owner - and promptly been mistaken for an invited guest. He now has an honoured place at table, but he cannot relax. He is afraid that, at any moment, they will rumble him and send for the police.

Flattery can never achieve a long-term hold on public opinion. Left to itself, that opinion is inchoate, fickle and anarchic. Representative democracy helps to give it an artificial air of coherence, but political leadership is also essential. Good leaders do not follow public opinion; they create it. That is what Margaret Thatcher did, and what Tony Blair is incapable of doing. He had the opportunities, electoral and economic, to be a major leader; he has not taken them.

Mr Blair sometimes consults one of his former schoolmasters, Eric Anderson. He should have listened to Mr Anderson on the hazards of courting popularity. Like any old-fashioned schoolmaster, his former teacher would have told the Prime Minister that young colleagues who try to be popular always end up held in contempt.

But the problem highlighted by September's fuel mutiny goes deeper than Tony Blair's weaknesses. Any political system must rely on some deference from the governed to their governors. If that disappears altogether, instability will follow.

In retrospect, it might seem odd that the basic question in political philosophy - by what right the state can compel obedience from its citizens - has taken so long to find its way from the lecture hall to the streets. But once it has escaped from academic confinement, it will not be easy to recapture. September's protesters may not have known it, but that was the question which they were asking. It will be asked again if the Government tries to ban hunting - and after September, we now know that there are previously unsuspected limits on government's tax-raising powers.

There used to be an answer to the question of the rights of government: "the social contract". This bore no relation to Harold Wilson's bogus usage, which merely referred to a stitch-up between him and the TUC, and which accelerated the decline in politicians' standing. The proper social contract was the one our ancestors were supposed to have signed, agreeing to circumscribe their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection from the state. Although no such event ever occurred, the original concept could at least claim - unlike the Wilsonian version - to be a pious fraud. As Coleridge put it, though the social contract was never signed, the idea of the social contract underlies every civilised society.

So it still does, and it would be absurd to claim that Britain has become ungovernable. A strong political leader would still be able to marginalise questions of legitimacy and consent. But in the absence of strong leadership, it is not inconceivable that the British people will gradually assert their right to renegotiate the social contract.

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