Five years with Blair

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE is like a man on a desert island hopefully scanning the ocean for signs of rescue, who, at the first glimpse of a cloud on the horizon, declares it to be smoke from an approaching steamship. In fact it is the portent of another storm like the one that shipwrecked him. Halfway through Tony Blair's first term in office, and almost on the fifth anniversary of his becoming Labour leader, the result of the Eddisbury by-election is strong evidence that the outcome of the next general election may be much like the last. The Blair bandwagon goes on and on, seemingly unstoppable. The Hague era is as far away as ever.

Looking not just at his prime ministership but at all that has happened since 1994, the defining event of Tony Blair's career remains his amazing landslide in 1997. In the mid-1980s, Labour seemed simply unelectable. The result even in 1992 made it look as if the Tories could get away with murder, probably for ever. Yet Mr Blair's counter-attack was flawless; his creation of "New Labour" was a marketing masterstroke. But these great successes may yet turn into his greatest weakness; he is still mentally coming from behind, still pulling to Labour's right to correct previous oversteer to the left, still smiling at Middle England in the hope it might grow to like him a little more.

Yet this is a pre-1997 mindset, not a post-2000 one. From time to time it does no harm to confront Middle England, tell it something it doesn't want to hear. Tell it, for instance, that asylum-seekers deserve a better deal, that the usefulness of cars is self-limiting, that better public services have to be paid for in taxes, that Britain is as much part of Europe's future as of its history. As the psychotherapist Brett Kahr suggests in his profile of Mr Blair in this newspaper today, the Prime Minister is a little too fond of playing a small boy in whose mouth butter would not melt. When Bernie Ecclestone's embarrassing pounds 1m gift to Labour came to light, coincidentally with government concessions over tobacco advertising in favour of Mr Ecclestone's Formula One interests, Mr Blair's response was simply to say: "Look, I am a good guy, therefore everything I do is good." He has the same all-innocent manner over the anti-foxhunting money the party received before the last election. It suggests someone who does not often question his own motives. The public could get very irritated with that. But that does not mean they won't vote for him: after all, they voted for Margaret Thatcher both as Prime Minister and as the person they would least like to have as a mother-in-law.

But the pilot who flies New Labour by the seat of his pants needs a sharp, self-critical conscience, not one that delivers automatic absolution on tap. At its best, the desire to embrace everyone in one great inclusive Blair-hug, this New Labour Third-Way big-tent politics thing, is strong testimony to his commitment to social justice. One of Mr Blair's most innovative and promising ideas is the Social Exclusion Unit at the Cabinet Office, designed to identify and correct all those ways in which society marginalises people (often as the accidental result of policies designed to achieve something else). His commitment to the minimum wage and the New Deal is more about producing a society in which everyone's dignity is safeguarded than it is about savings to be made in the benefits budget so that taxes can be cut. This is where it most strikingly differs from previous, superficially similar, ventures by the Conservatives. A left wing that knee-jerks off about Blair-the-Tory has simply air-brushed from its memory the "greed is good", "devil take the hindmost" not-so-coded messages of the Thatcher years.

In fact Mr Blair is a firm believer in the common good, before which even the forces of capitalism have to bend. Where he differs most from earlier Labour leaders is not in his moral commitment to a fairer society but in his ability to do something to bring it about. To his credit, also, is the refurbishment of Britain's good name in Europe, his technique of building alliances instead of making enemies. His politically important friendship with President Clinton proves he can be exceptionally loyal: European leaders will find that, too. It is just a pity that his "leadership of Europe" was announced before it arrived.

There is a warning for him here. The ability to manipulate the public's perception can quickly lead to the politics of fantasy, what we might call the Mussolini syndrome. Aggressive spin-doctoring was a vital part of the New Labour relaunch, but it has become lodged as a permanent part of the New Labour method. That could backfire on Mr Blair too. The public will begin to distrust the line it is fed even when the line has a good deal of truth in it. People who try too hard to be liked end up not being liked at all. Not that he has gone overboard to win hearts and minds in the public sector. But this is another sort of playing to the gallery, to prove he can be tough on Labour's core constituency. Mr Blair, like so many generals, is still mentally fighting the last war. He is actually the most secure prime minister for at least half a century. A little less control freakery and a little more tolerance of dissent in the ranks of Labour backbenchers would make for a healthier party and Government.

The docility of Labour's enormous back-bench army is disappointing. It suggests both a lack of talent and a lack of courage, qualities Mr Blair is going to need sooner or later in a new generation of ministers. Labour has to start turning itself, like the Conservatives used to be, into the natural party of government. But to do that will need some slight corrections on the tiller in the immediate future.

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