How has Mr Blair emerged from this crisis?

Blair's great strength was being all things to all people - now it is becoming his weakness
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The Independent Online

As soon as the text of the revised edition of my biography of Tony Blair went to the publishers last month, Sod's Law guaranteed that the Prime Minister would face a completely unexpected crisis that would transform people's perceptions of him.

As soon as the text of the revised edition of my biography of Tony Blair went to the publishers last month, Sod's Law guaranteed that the Prime Minister would face a completely unexpected crisis that would transform people's perceptions of him.

And so it happened. As the scale of the crisis suddenly started to unfold on Monday evening, and while others dashed to the petrol station to fill up, I wondered how Blair's response would require a rewrite of my final chapter, to be delivered next month.

Either the Prime Minister would react brilliantly to a crisis, I thought, and shake off all the doubts clinging to him since the Millennium celebration at the Dome, or he would fail miserably to rise to the occasion and begin to spiral out of control.

In the end, he took the third way and did neither - although that in itself took its toll on his reputation.

The first failing of his response, which everyone around the Prime Minister readily accepts, was that it was slow. The highly-centralised Downing Street machine, which can react within seconds to unhelpful images on television or hostile articles in the press, is not so good at gathering information from the real world and planning for contingencies.

Although emergency powers were taken on Monday, the blockades had already been running for four days and Blair still seemed to think they would not amount to much on Monday night, when he was prevented from attending a party for John Prescott by a demonstration of (confusingly enough) hunt supporters.

One important feature of the stronger, more political No 10 under Blair is how dependent it is on the person of the Prime Minister. He was in New York last week for the UN Millennium Summit and returned to Chequers for the weekend where he authorised the operation to rescue British soldiers in Sierra Leone. When he is not there, Downing Street seems to go into screen-saver mode. Without its hyperactive dynamo, nothing much seems to happen, and it reacts passively to events.

The second mistake was that Blair, with his admiration for the dynamism of big business, thought he could rely on the oil companies to do as they were told. It was BP which supplied its chairman, David Simon, as one of his early ministers. But he overlooked their brute self-interest, which meant that they were happy to collude in a crisis over a tax on their products. Like so many politicians before him, Blair has discovered that business leaders are unreliable allies.

His third failing was evident on Tuesday afternoon, when he cancelled his engagements and held the first of three news conferences in No 10 on consecutive days, using the ill-fated "24-hours" phrase. What he said was that he hoped to have the situation "on the way back to normal" within 24 hours, but the damage was done.

That damage will be forgotten soon enough, but the more lasting erosion of Blair's credibility was caused by his caution. Although he said the right things - "we cannot accept that policy should be dictated by illegal blockades" - what struck me was that he had to read them from his notes. There was neither passion nor clarity. He repeatedly said he understood the grievances of the protesters: as a master of the art of communication, he knows well enough that a balanced message is a confused one.

His model, Margaret Thatcher, might not have done much differently, and might have been just as slow to get to grips with the situation. But she would certainly have sounded very different. The nation would have been in no doubt that the blockades were something up with which she would not put. Many of the people who have lent the wide, but shallow, support of public opinion to the protesters would have disliked her hectoring tone, but they would have known where she stood. If Blair had taken a similarly robust stance he might have annoyed people but he might also have earned their respect because he would have been right.

He remains surprisingly ill-defined in the public mind. Never mind that in just three short years as Prime Minister he has answered the Irish Question, fought a war in the Balkans, lost London and had a baby, people do not seem to have a clear idea of him. With the exception so far of the war in Kosovo, an uncharacteristic and undeniably risky adventure, he seems instinctively to resist definition. His great strength was that he was all things to all people: now it is his weakness too.

The other image from the week that stayed in my mind was that of a very cross woman on one of the truckers' demonstrations complaining that she had voted for Blair but he had turned out to be a "wolf in sheep's clothing". His real problem, it seems to me, is the opposite: that he had acted tough but was sorry if he had offended anyone in so doing and would be giving in to their demands as soon as a decent interval had elapsed so that he did not look completely weak.

The crisis has indelibly marked his government as "out of touch" (John Prescott's 400-yard drive at last year's party conference seems an ever more expensive blunder). By the start of this week it was already too late to do anything about that, but Blair could have won some ground back by an uncompromising stand against the attempt to bring the country to a halt. Instead, he has tried too hard not to offend, and as a result has annoyed everyone.

The new edition of John Rentoul's biography of Tony Blair will be published by Little, Brown early next year.