What an extraordinary position Tony Blair has got himself into. For seven years of "presidential leadership", he has sought to stamp his personal imprimatur on every issue, and invited the nation to have faith in him on each one. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. When all else failed, during his endless round of confrontations with television studio audiences, Mr Blair's final appeal was always that he knew he was right, and that the people of Britain should trust him.
Now, as retrospective justification for the official aim of the war is looking unlikely, it is looking equally unlikely that such a plea will work in the future. For Blair, this erosion of his moral authority and wisdom of judgement could not have come at a worse time. From the euro to GM crops, the Blair agenda is littered with crucial decisions which he has unequivocally backed and which are deeply unpopular with the electorate. Mr Blair may continue to "know he is right" on these matters, but the trust he so often asks for is less likely now than ever to be forthcoming. Why should it be, when he doesn't trust us enough to share his own convictions in anything more than emotional shorthand?
Where does this leave democratic debate in Britain? The style of leadership, in which the presentation of difficult arguments is often abandoned in favour of personal pleas for the entire nation to put themselves in Mr Blair's hands, appears to be breeding a particular type of apathy, in which people feel that even having an opinion, let alone a deeply held one, is a waste of their energy. What Mr Blair knows to be right will surely come to pass. How long, as distrust of Mr Blair's "personal assurances" rises, can this go on?
Much of the feeling that it can go on endlessly, is to do with the lack of a credible opposition to the Government. People no longer feel that their vote counts, because there seems to be no real alternative to the Blairite world view. This plays into the hands of extremists, such as the British National Party, who are able to tap into feelings of powerlessness in order to push an agenda which divides those at the bottom of the heap. But it also leaves those who shun such dangerous and primitive political games with no one that they feel can represent their views.
The war galvanised political debate in this country and around the world in a manner not seen since the early days of Labour's victory. But for those who now find that their opinions were not only not listened to but were actually quite cynically manipulated, only deep disillusionment beckons. It would be an awful thing if the domestic legacy of this war was a further slide away from engagement with political decisions. But it's difficult to resist the conclusion that this is inevitable.
Mr Blair and his Government have long been concerned about political apathy, even though they are loath to connect this lack of interest with the way in which they conduct their politics. At the same time, though, they're glad of apathy, for they somehow always manage to persuade themselves that while it is no fault of theirs, all those not voting would of course have been on their side.
The latest example of this odd sort of double-think is the Government's reaction to the weekend's Transport and General Workers' Union leadership election. The turnout may have been hideously low, at 20.9 per cent, and this no doubt is something that the Labour Party leadership will take comfort from. But this does not change the fact that Downing Street's favoured leadership candidate, Jack Dromey, was roundly trounced by a left-wing candidate, Tony Woodley.
Mr Woodley is full of old-style union rhetoric, and he plans to join forces with a growing array of "like-minded" unions to "put the Labour back in the party". He warns of "electoral disaster" if Labour doesn't reconnect with its grassroots support, and also plans to create a central office "disputes team" to help run strikes.
But much of the list of policies that Mr Woodley has pledged to campaign on do not sound nearly as radical as such talk suggests. Stronger employment laws (so that people can't be fired by text message, for example), a £6 minimum wage (bringing the lowest possible annual salary for a 40-hour-a-week job up to a princely £12,480), earnings-related pensions and more help for manufacturing are hardly outrageous suggestions. If unions didn't feel that these were central campaigning issues, it would be difficult to imagine what unions might be for at all.
Yet these, to Mr Blair, are the demands of the "wreckers", whom we must listen to at our peril. On this, at least, people still seem to believe him. Distrust of Mr Blair may be growing, but distrust of the unions certainly doesn't seem to be declining. Mr Woodley's talk in itself admits defeat.
By concentrating his attention on trying to effect change in the Labour Party by political means, rather than turning to his membership and that of the unions he sees as allies, he is himself admitting, surely, that the grassroots of whom he speaks so much, don't have the stomach - or the numbers at least - for the fight. Only those who are absolutely confident about their indispensability, or absolutely desperate, go on strike nowadays. And even when they manage to attract broad public support, it doesn't do them much good.
Andy Gilchrist, another of the wreckers that Mr Blair is supposed to fear so much, certainly created some difficult times for the Government. But eventually even he was separated from those he represented, not just by his dining habits but by cutting a deal with the Government. The firefighters' dispute is at the moment simply stalled. How those ghastly wreckers, the rank-and-file members of the Fire Brigades Union, can get things rolling again, remains to be seen.
There can be no doubt at all that Mr Blair remains determined to stand for his historic third term. But what can he do in the next two years to ensure that his great victory is not also a great defeat - a general election in which a shockingly small number of people actually vote at all? One thing he can do is start realising that he cannot continue to ask for trust, without earning back a great deal of the trust that he has squandered.
Mr Blair was sure that he was right about the invasion of Iraq, and there can be no doubt that he envisaged himself as now basking in the public opinion bounce that confirmation of his view would have brought. I don't myself believe that he was actually mendacious in his presentation of the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He was probably guilty of no more than massaging what he saw to be the truth for what he considered to be an end that would justify his means.
But in a way, that is absolutely at the heart of Blair's difficulty. Only a fool would trust a man who is so lacking in rigour when it comes to trusting himself. Unfortunately though, while an increasing number of voters don't trust him anymore, they don't trust anyone else either - not the left, not the right, not the unions. Which is no way at all to run a democracy.Reuse content