Steve Richards: As he fends off cheap jibes and accusations, Blair seems a far more substantial figure

He has been brought down from deification to a point where he is not trusted
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The Independent Online

In his recent Independent interview, I asked Tony Blair whether he was still enjoying the job compared with the early years when many in the media and quite a few voters assumed that he could walk on water. He replied by highlighting what he regarded as a mismatch. When he was inexperienced and not sure how to do the job, he got a good press. Now he was more experienced and knew what to do, some had turned against him.

This is not unusual. There is often an odd and politically dangerous mismatch between the way a leader is perceived and the political reality. I recall election day in 1997, a glorious sunny day, when people could hardly contain their excitement. Newspapers were predicting the start of a new revolution. Voters were planning street parties. Even the BBC's Today programme was thrown by the changed mood. With characteristic naivety, it had invited a lot of left-wing trouble-makers on the programme on Friday morning and the wretched dissidents did not play ball. The trouble-makers did not cause any trouble. Tony Blair could not only walk on water then, but could have won anything - the Eurovision Song Contest, the Champions' League and the US presidential election.

Yet Labour's manifesto in 1997 was painfully incremental. It was the most cautious programme put before the electorate since the Second World War. The scale of the landslide was historic, but the Labour campaign that preceded it had been ruthlessly pragmatic. The mismatch between mundane reality and soaring perceptions has been part of Mr Blair's problem ever since. The landslide was so spectacular, voters expected change on a similarly sweeping scale.

The expectations were fuelled by the Government's early tendency to hype up any initiative. A review was often hailed as a historic decision, and when nothing much happened the voters were understandably suspicious. Like all Labour's mistakes, this was a product of defensive insecurity rather than overweening arrogance: Help! We've got to feed the expectations and keep the newspapers happy or they will turn against us.

In the euphoria of May 1997, the inexperience of Blair and his colleagues was largely put to one side as we waited for our lives to be transformed within a day or two.

Today, the mismatch is as strong, but the other way around. The anti-Blair hysteria is as misplaced as the early worship of the Labour leader. In recent months, as the voters and the media have turned against him I have found him more impressive. It is relatively easy for a leader to be authoritative when everyone is telling him how wonderful he is. In my view, he was nowhere near impressive enough in those early years. After 1997, he had the political space to do much more, especially in relation to the decaying public services. In 1997, for the first time in decades, the voters were ready also to listen to arguments from the left of centre and too often heard instead echoes from the years of Tory rule.

Now, eight years later, Blair is a more substantial figure, but is being attacked with the cheapest gibe of the lot, the banal and simplistic allegation that he cannot be trusted. It would have been possible for a newspaper or interviewer to attack any political leader from any era on the issue of "trust" if they had wanted to do so. When Labour is in power, it is more fashionable because this is essentially a right- wing attack. If political leaders are not trusted, it is easier to make the case for the country to be run by a much smaller state, the survival of the fittest with no lying politicians taxing us to pay for free health care or imposing regulations such as the minimum wage. That is why extreme right- wing columnists hail the disdainful approach of some political interviewers: let's get rid of the politicians and let the markets rule. The argument that elected governments can improve the quality of people's lives is undermined by the simplistic focus on "trust".

Still, the attacks have worked. Blair has been brought down from deification to a point where he is not trusted. In 1997, he could have won the Eurovision Song Contest. If he won it now, people would assume he had fiddled the voting. He has endured the abuse, the shouting in TV studios, the assumption of interviewers that he is a liar, with good-humoured resilience, no hint of anger or irritation, and whenever possible he has sought to focus on at least some policy areas. This is part of the bleak irony. The 2005 manifesto is a more substantial document than the glossy but insubstantial 1997 programme. The document was prepared also in a slightly more benevolent context in which higher public spending and modest redistribution are a tiny bit more politically acceptable.

Even so, the progressive consensus hailed by Gordon Brown is a long way from realisation. Indeed, today could mark the fracturing of any early tentative consensus along progressive lines. Mistakenly, some frustrated Labour supporters will switch to the Liberal Democrats to "give Blair a bloody nose" over Iraq. Do they not realise he received a bloody nose long ago and that he will never fully recover? He reads the polls, the focus groups, and the newspapers and knows that Iraq has undermined his authority.

I suspect his original and premature support for military action was also partly another example of a defensive error. Old Labour was weak on defence so New Labour must be strong. Old Labour was anti-American, New Labour must be pro-American. Blair should have risen above such nervy calculations, but serving his political apprenticeship in the 1980s he could not do so.

He works on the assumption that the Conservatives can recover at any moment while the left have nowhere else to go. In the light of what is likely to happen today, he would have been wiser to pay more attention to the threat posed by Charles Kennedy and less to mollifying Rupert Murdoch.

But for all the frustrations he and New Labour have endured, in spite of the poisonous nonsense about "trust", the values that Blair espoused 10 years ago are the same as they are today. It looks as if Britain, the country that voted for the most right-wing government in Europe for 18 years, will elect a Labour government for a third time.

The progressive policies rarely cited in the campaign, from Sure Start to tax credits, will not be wiped away by meaningless protest votes or support for the Conservatives.

In France, three years ago the left was defeated in a campaign dominated by immigration. In the US, the Democrats were defeated in spite of their opposition to the war. Mr Blair staggers on. There were many missed opportunities when everyone adored him. History will reflect more kindly on the dignified resilience of his final years when some voters and the media turned away.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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