Steve Richards: Tony Blair's presidential style may leave Labour looking lost after his departure

He seems almost proud of the apparent gulf between his own position and that of his party
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The Independent Online

Mr Blair is a centrist politician who is at ease when working with leading figures from other parties. From his election in 1997, he has sought to lead an unofficial coalition spanning the centre left and centre right, describing the range of support more diplomatically as a "big tent". Now the Prime Minister's style of leadership is formalised. He leads a national coalition against terror.

The consensus will not last forever. As I argued last Tuesday, the causes of the attacks in London and the most effective ways of dealing with the continuing threat are too contentious. But for now, a national crisis places Mr Blair in the position he finds politically most comfortable. He is the leader of a nation grappling with essentially apolitical questions with the support of other parties.

The outbreak of terrorism is not the only event since the election that has propelled Mr Blair into his role as leader of a wide-ranging coalition. The disappearance of Europe as an issue of fierce controversy is also a significant factor.

Not so long ago there was the prospect of a make-or-break political battle over the European constitution. Mr Blair would have had no choice but to take on Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and the angry prejudices of many voters. Instead, after the collapse of the constitution there is a bizarre harmony. When Mr Blair articulates his vision for Europe Conservative MPs nod in agreement. After his recent speech to the European parliament in Brussels Conservative MEPs queued up to express their admiration.

Some pro-Europeans also hail the Prime Minister as the figure that can lead Europe away from its current crisis. Mr Blair has become the latest prime minister who is pro-European, as long as the rest of Europe follows the British way. The contortion is superficial and precarious but for now Eurosceptics and pro-Europeans pay homage.

A few months after a poisonous election campaign Mr Blair basks in the praise of Mr Howard for his response to the bombs. Even the anti-war Charles Kennedy is wary of stating the obvious, that Iraq has fuelled the threat posed by terrorists and made Britain much more of a potent symbolic target. There will be no referendum on Europe to shape the future of British politics. Suddenly there are no great, titanic political battles ahead between the parties except those relating to the reform of public services where Mr Blair will be in the familiar position of taking on parts of his own party.

More than ever attention is focused on the Prime Minister. This was always going to be the case even if extraordinary and terrible events had not intervened. His announcement nine months ago that he would fight only one more election meant that this final term would be largely about his search for a defining legacy. As one of Mr Blair's advisers put it to me in the context of the domestic agenda, "This is when Tony is really going to go for it". Another suggested, again in relation to the reform of public services, that "Tony feels liberated knowing that he does not have to fight another general election".

Yes, but what about the rest of Mr Blair's party? Mr Blair does not hide the distance between his own position and that of his party. He seems almost proud of the apparent gulf.

In his tribute to Ted Heath in the Commons last week, Mr Blair noted that the former prime minister had told him in the mid-1980s that he did not look or speak like a Labour MP. The anecdote was a joke about Mr Heath's blunt candour, but Mr Blair's willingness to recount it is revealing. He rarely loses the chance to report exchanges that confirm, as he often puts it, that he was "not born into the Labour party".

During the first meeting of the parliamentary Labour party after the election Mr Blair pleaded with a few rebel MPs and peers to give him some space, adding that he was loyal to them when Labour lost elections in the 1980s. This was partly an understandable call for loyalty in the light of a third election victory, but the implication of his plea was brutally clear. Labour lost elections. He won them. This is a very dangerous message for Labour if it resonates more widely once Mr Blair has left. It is also an ironic one, as arguably Mr Blair's biggest achievement has been to make the Labour party electable, almost the natural party of government.

Unavoidably, long-serving prime ministers become disconnected from their parties. The most recent example was Margaret Thatcher who by the end of her regime had come to personify her party and her government. When she went there was not much left, which is the fatal danger when prime ministers become too presidential in a party-based political system.

In a limited way the Conservatives were better placed to cope after the fall of Mrs Thatcher than Labour is now. In John Major (hugely rated for a short time), Chris Patten, Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine there were personalities appealing enough to briefly re-energise their party and government. It is largely forgotten that between the end of 1990 and the election in April 1992, this quartet changed the tone of British politics, propelling their party to an easy fourth election victory.

Sometimes the best speeches are remembered for the wrong reasons. Mr Brown's speech at Labour's conference in 2003 is recalled only for its clumsy attempt to undermine Mr Blair's leadership. In a rare lapse of public self-discipline Mr Brown ended his speech by mischievously declaring: "At our best when at our boldest. At our best when Labour." The year before Mr Blair had uttered only the first of those two sentences, the boldness referring to his own personal agenda rather than Labour's. Mr Brown's speech had a serious message irrespective of his own too transparent personal ambition. He sought to link Labour with the Government's successes to counter the implicit and perhaps unintended Blairite message that the most enduring achievements had been implemented in spite of his party.

Nearly 15 years after the fall of Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives are still searching for an encore. The current leadership contest shows little sign of clearer definition. On one level, this is flattering for Mrs Thatcher, but disastrous for her party. Mr Blair's biggest political challenge is to avoid being similarly flattered when he leaves.