Steve Richards: Blair's journey is Labour's problem

As a leader he could be engagingly self-deprecating, and yet he extrapolated from his own political rootlessness an entire global phenomenon

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Tony Blair prepares for a return to the centre of the political stage. The mere prospect of Blair's memoirs is already generating a response that borders on the hysterical. Labour's leadership candidates speculate nervously in private about what might be in it. The BBC will broadcast an hour-long interview. Newspapers plan extensive coverage. The financial arrangements for the narrative are a source of raging controversy. More than three years since stepping down from office with a characteristically ambiguous departure, in which he was forced out at a time of his choosing, Blair arouses a mixture of hatred from some and near uncritical worship from others.

Both responses are misplaced and help to fuel a mythology about his leadership that Blair almost certainly believes himself. The title of the book, A Journey, hints at the probable overall theme. He has said many times that when he became leader of the Labour Party he tried above all to be popular, but by the end he did what was "the right thing to do" even if that meant facing deep unpopularity. The myth suggests a journey of strengthening boldness and conviction irrespective of public and media opinion.

The romantic interpretation of what was in reality a defensive and expedient leadership will be widely celebrated next week. I expect to read a thousand columns and editorials in which writers lament Labour's only electable leader and compare the titan to the weak-kneed lefties contesting the current contest. Blair's charm, humour and espousal of convictions will be hailed as qualities much missed outside the leadership of the equally crusading Coalition that shares his brave radicalism. Labour's opponents will cite his brilliance and electoral appeal to torment the current crop of politicians in the same way that Margaret Thatcher's interventions were made to make John Major's life a form of political hell.

The parallel with Thatcher is an important one. Of course there are glaring differences. Blair's behaviour as a former Prime Minister has been impeccable compared with hers. He has not uttered a public word of disloyalty since he left office, although this act of impressive self-discipline might be about to end. Blair was also a different sort of politician. She was a revolutionary who moved her party and the country to the right. He sought to make Labour electable by adapting to her revolution and in some ways embracing it. Nonetheless, his legacy as a long-serving, election-winning leader is at least as daunting for Labour as Thatcher's was for the Conservatives.

It took the Conservatives more than a decade to come to terms with Thatcherism and arguably they are still in her thrall. They follow her economic policies and continue to debate whether Margaret Thatcher was a true Conservative or an insurrectionary outsider.

The inquests are interesting but at least all anguished participants agree that Thatcher was rooted emphatically on the right. Labour faces a much more agonising task in making sense of Blair. As a leader he could be engagingly self-deprecating and yet he extrapolated from his own political rootlessness an entire global phenomenon. Because he, personally, was not on the left he declared that the terms "left" and "right" were moribund across the political world. He is still at it. Recently he gave an insightful lecture to the Institute of Government about his period in office, delivered with the familiar mesmerising vitality and empathic tonal agility. Again though he repeated the dangerous banality that there was no left or right divide in politics and only one between what he called "open and closed". He was speaking days after a Budget that was rooted further to the right than those delivered by Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson in the 1980s. With a comic chutzpah, leaders of the Coalition claim the Budget is "progressive", but the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed yesterday that the poor would be hardest hit. Yet Blair's political outlook bars any meaningful political analysis. Was the Budget open or closed? The question does not get us very far.

When David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005 and supported several key Blairite policy initiatives, Blair made a similarly convenient extrapolation. He did not conclude that his beliefs had become virtually inseparable from those of the Conservative leadership but that the entire world had entered a period of "political cross dressing", in which parties would dress up in each other's policies. In Peter Mandelson's brilliantly revealing memoir he and Blair discuss policies in the most simplistic ways. Is Brown Old Labour? Is Brown a different version of New Labour? Are they the only true New Labour believers? The lack of rooted precision is alarming. Significantly, at no point is there any explanation as to how Blair differs in most of his political outlook from David Cameron.

This presents an acute problem for a Labour Party that is otherwise in a much stronger position than it probably deserves to be. For more than a decade they were led by a leader who argued almost explicitly that any policies a millimetre to the left of Cameron's marked a return to their party's so-called comfort zone. He proclaimed with loud cheers from much of the mainstream media. Part of Blair's genius was making his leadership seem bold when he happened to have the full support of Rupert Murdoch and when the main object of attack was his own weak-kneed party. The contortion reached its most remarkable twist in the build-up to the war in Iraq when Blair proclaimed his boldness in forming an alliance with the most powerful country in the world, with the intense support of the most influential media owner on the globe. Blair had several conversations with Murdoch in the week leading up to the war. During them I suspect he was in his comfort zone.

At least the Conservative Party knew what it was addressing in the long shadow of their great election winner. Thatcher made right-wing policies electorally potent and transformed her vanquished opponents. Labour faces a different dilemma. Did it only win elections because Blair pioneered the de-politicised decade in which his favourite adjectives were tamely chronological, new versus old? For sure the only reason that Blair secured the enthusiastic approval of influential, Conservative-supporting columnists such as Daniel Finkelstein of The Times or Matthew D'Ancona at The Sunday Telegraph was that they agreed with him on most matters. He did not convert them or use his magical powers of persuasion to move them leftwards. Or is it possible to embark on a new and openly progressive political journey under a genuinely courageous but tactically agile Labour leader?

Blair was a decent leader who sought to navigate a middle way through virtually every crisis, including Iraq. He was no messiah and those who loathe him fuel the myth that he was, inadvertently, promoting the notion of a journey that did not really take place. There can be no more inappropriate reaction to such an expedient political leader. But the theatrical pragmatist who danced as one with David Cameron towards the end of his leadership presents his old party with a bewildering inheritance and has left the floor to the Coalition that seeks to carry on where he left off. In comparison, dealing with the convictions of the Iron Lady once she had departed the political stage was a piece of cake for the Conservatives.

Steve Richards' book on New Labour, 'Whatever It Takes', is published next month by Fourth Estate. His series 'The Brown Years' will also be broadcast on Radio 4 next month

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