Tony Blair could have been a great leader, but he was too young and inexperienced

The context in which Blair soared to the top is a hugely underestimated factor in explaining all that has followed

What would have happened had John Smith lived? None of us knows for sure. I suspect he would not have been as heroic as some have suggested, or as complacently inadequate as others hint discreetly. But in speculating fruitlessly about what might have been, we overlook what is highly significant and beyond dispute.

Ten years ago Smith died suddenly, leaving a wholly unexpected vacancy at the top of his party. In the space of a few hours Tony Blair moved from being a young Shadow Cabinet member with no experience of government to being a Prime Minister in waiting. These stark facts are more illuminating than a debate about whether Smith would have signed up to the single currency in a flourish of pro-European boldness.

Smith's death meant that Blair was propelled towards Downing Street when he was only a half- formed politician. By 1994 he was being talked about as a possible future leader, but not as one who would take over that summer. In my view, the context in which Blair soared to the top is a hugely underestimated factor in explaining all that has followed, including his disastrous decision to support President Bush's war against Iraq.

Blair's success as Leader of the Opposition obscured his extreme inexperience. For nine years Neil Kinnock was taunted constantly about his lack of ministerial experience. His critics pointed out mercilessly that he had only run the students' union at Cardiff University. By the summer of 1994 Blair had not even run a students' union. Even so between 1994 and 1997 there is not a single reference in the newspapers to Blair's youthful inexperience. No one in the media or in the awestruck Conservative Party asked whether the new leader was ready for it, fully prepared to be the first Labour Prime Minister for 18 years.

I would not be surprised if Blair posed the question quietly to himself. A decade ago he was suddenly facing the intimidating mysteries of power having never exercised it before. Most US presidents have been governors of big states. Nearly all aspirant Prime Ministers have been cabinet ministers. Before becoming "Britain's next Prime Minister" Blair had been the shadow Home Affairs spokesman.

Political leaders define themselves largely by their own past experience. For Margaret Thatcher, her period as Education Secretary in Ted Heath's government was pivotal. She witnessed at first hand the tribulations that swept Heath from power, and learnt also how departments work, the virtues and severe limitations of the civil service. John Smith had a supreme self-confidence partly based on previous ministerial experience. He had been a cabinet minister in the late 1970s. Power was not an elusive mystery for him. Unlike Kinnock and Blair, he had been there.

What had been Blair's pivotal political experiences by May 1994? He had been a central figure in recent policy changes and internal reforms in the Labour Party. His most profound broader experience was being on the losing side in general elections. He had never been a Labour MP at a time when his party was in power.

Blair's limited experience led him to focus on purging his party of its recent past. He had thrived as a politician who took on his own party. This is what he would do as a leader. His highly developed sense of Labour's limited electoral appeal produced some important reforms under his leadership. But his determination to be New Labour, never to be old, led him also into an appalling political trap in his relationship with President Bush.

Even before he got to power in 1997 he resolved that he would not break the alliance with the US. Old Labour was seen as unilateralist and anti-American. New Labour would be different. Donald Macintyre's biography of Peter Mandelson includes a revealing memo from Mandelson to Blair relating to the new Clause Four. Mandelson was worried that the section on defence was too soft. "Will a Blair government not go to war?" Mandelson asked in his memo. Blair responded by beefing up the section. Yes, a Blair government would be ready to go to war. It would be different. Being prepared to fight wars became another tactic to show that new Labour had moved on from its weak-kneed, vote-losing past.

On moving into Downing Street, Blair was aware that the US could declare war on Iraq at any time. We should not forget that the Clinton presidency had not ruled out such an option. Blair was ready for it. I have no doubt he would have backed Clinton in a full-scale war. He would be a world player like Thatcher, making it harder for the Conservatives to oppose what he was doing.

It is easy to romanticise what life would have been like under a Smith premiership, but I doubt if he would have been so worried by a demoralised Conservative Party or right-wing newspapers that lacked a vibrant party to support. In contrast, once Clinton had left the White House, Blair resolved to stay close to Bush, partly to deprive the Tories of political space.

He knew his support for the war against Iraq would get the backing of Murdoch's newspapers and the leadership of the Conservative party, therefore neutering any attacks from the Opposition. He was determined to show that being pro-European did not mean he was anti-American, even if that meant taking on the major powers in Europe over the war. Blair would be strong. He would be new. As a result he is weak, dangerously weak.

There is a single fruitful question as we reflect on John Smith's death. What would have happened had Blair become a cabinet minister in a Smith government? As Home Secretary, Blair would have handled intelligence and got a greater sense of its unreliability. He would have had the chance to observe at close hand Smith dealing with international leaders. He would also have developed as a politician in the context of an election victory after all those defeats.

Instead, there is still a paralysing sense in Downing Street and beyond that they are impostors, disturbing the natural order of things where Britain elects right-wing administrations. A Prime Ministerial decision to oppose the war against Iraq would have demanded considerable boldness and vision. In the build-up, Blair would have been derided as weak by the Conservatives and the Murdoch press.

But now he would have been vindicated for being truly strong, in a unique position to redefine Britain's confused position in the world, a chance to use Downing Street as a pulpit to change voters' perceptions and prejudices. Perversely, he is allied to an increasingly discredited US administration, with many of those who praised his apparent boldness in advance of the war now wondering whether he was weak all along.

If Smith had lived, Blair would now be a 51-year-old cabinet minister and in a position perhaps to be a great Prime Minister. There are many tragedies associated with the sudden death of a political leader. In this case one of them was that Blair rose to the top when he was too young and inexperienced. Ten years ago he was nowhere near as ready as he seemed.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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