Steve Richards: Mr Blair sees himself as bold and radical, but in reality he is a political cross-dresser

At moments when leadership was required, Blair was eyeing up the clothes of his opponents
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The Independent Online

Since becoming Labour's leader Tony Blair has been a riotous cross-dresser, adapting ideas, policies and allies normally associated with the Conservative Party. Many of Mr Blair's policy prescriptions cross left-right lines. Now, he extrapolates from his unusual style of leadership a model for our age. According to Mr Blair, we are all cross-dressers now. In a speech to Rupert Murdoch and his executives in California at the weekend, Mr Blair declared that tribal political leadership was over and that cross-dressing was here to stay. The old left-right boundaries were gone forever.

Characteristically, Mr Blair portrayed his analysis as bold and radical. Once more he conjured up a picture of a great visionary leader surrounded by weak-kneed lesser figures to the left and right of him. In case there was any doubt, he declared that: "Caution is error. To hesitate is to lose". He might have added that he did not possess a reverse gear. Instead he suggested that he was criticised for going too fast, but that his only regret was that he had not been more radical, taking on even more robustly the forces of conservatism.

No doubt this evocation of leadership thrilled the media cross-dressers in the audience. Mr Murdoch's newspapers have endorsed both main parties with enthusiasm in recent decades. Yet Mr Blair constructs a heroic narrative that does not accord with reality. Few of Mr Blair's critics condemn him for being too radical. Mr Blair stated that from the left and right people were alarmed that he was moving too far too quickly. As far as I can tell, no one is making such a point. Some challenge the direction of his limited reforms, not the pace. Above all, his sensible internal critics regret Mr Blair's narrow definition of what constitutes "reform".

From sorting out the railways to making radical changes to what children are taught and examined on, Mr Blair could have been bold. He chose not to be. In the build-up to the war against Iraq, Mr Blair could have dared to challenge the obviously destructive course of the divided Bush administration. He chose not to do so. He has a genius for taking the safest route available to him and portraying this as an act of unprecedented political courage.

After the last election, the former home secretary Charles Clarke presented Mr Blair with a detailed note outlining the areas that required radical reform. The list included the need for innovative measures on the constitution, the environment, Europe and transport. On all these fronts Mr Blair chose to be cautious, one of the reasons why Mr Clarke has publicly noted a lack of reforming drive.

Indeed, the speech to Mr Murdoch's conference is emblematic. Mr Murdoch and his audience would have loved every word of it. In a speech about political courage Mr Blair told his powerful and largely right-wing audience what they wanted to hear. On foreign affairs too, Mr Blair erected a false divide in his speech. He warned that those that are anti-American are "foolish, short-sighted and very dangerous". Yet few of his opponents are anti-American. They disagree with the approach of President Bush, an attitude widely held within the United States.

Mr Blair warned his doting audience that: "Opposition from traditionalists is immense." Yet he is the traditionalist. He has been desperate to follow orthodox British foreign policy, standing, as he put it again last Friday, "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States. A less traditional Prime Minister would have dared to take a distinctive stand.

Political cross-dressing, like the Third Way, does not get a leader very far. There have been several pivotal moments in recent years, when decisive and progressive leadership was required but Mr Blair was too distracted, eyeing up the clothes of his opponents. He was cautious and hesitant: the very characteristics that he claims to regard as the sins of leadership.

After the 2001 election, senior aides in Downing Street attended an away day at Chequers. In his excellent book, one of the advisors, Peter Hyman, recalls that he and others stressed the need for increased investment in frail public services. They said also that the cash would have to be raised through higher taxes. Mr Hyman reports that Mr Blair was opposed. Mr Blair's view was that the problems relating to investment had been addressed in the first term. Voters would not accept a rise in tax. Presumably Mr Blair was following his instincts as a cross-dresser. Perhaps he had looked at the Conservatives, noting that they were also opposed to tax increases, and to President Bush, who was announcing a series of tax cuts in the US in 2001.

Less damaged by the defeats of the 1980s, his younger advisers prevailed. Fortunately Gordon Brown had also recognised the need for higher investment and had begun to plan for a tax rise. If Mr Blair had been unchallenged there would have been no additional increases in investment during the second term. He lacked an adequate ideological route map. Cross-dressing was not leading anywhere. Yet now the Conservatives accept the higher levels of spending for schools and hospitals even if they dispute the way the money has been spent.

In foreign affairs also, Mr Blair's cross-dressing has limited his vision. John Rentoul pointed out in The Independent on Sunday that the recorded conversation between President Bush and Mr Blair at the G8 did not expose immediately Mr Blair's subservience. Commendably, Mr Blair took a more urgent view of the situation and wanted to head off on a diplomatic mission. His readiness not to go when President Bush implied it would be unwelcome signalled the limits of Britain's independence in foreign policy. Now Mr Blair has reached the contorted point where he notes the "urgent need for a ceasefire as soon as possible". The urgency reflects the growing concerns of senior figures within the Government, but the additional qualification -"as soon as possible" - keeps all options open as Britain stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States.

I spoke to one Brownite minister last week, who said: "I hope Gordon would have been bolder in this situation." The fact that he was not sure is worth noting. But Mr Blair should note too that others in his Government, including some in the Cabinet, do not see his attachment to the US as an example of bold leadership. They regard it as weak.

When Mr Blair returns from holiday at the end of August there will be a renewed frenzy of speculation about the timing of his departure. This is a highly charged but peripheral issue. The much bigger question is whether anyone on the centre-left can provide a greater sense of political purpose. There is a danger that in order to reassure the mighty Mr Murdoch, Labour's next leader will feel obliged to prove that he is a promiscuous cross-dresser too.