There is no doubt that the year ahead will be both difficult and decisive for Blair's reform of Labour. The Prime Minister was right to point out that these are days of rare volatility, and to predict that the beady glare of media scepticism will now turn on the Opposition party and leader. And what will happen, almost certainly, is that opinions will harden about Blair, that his strengths and weaknesses, blurred thus far, will become more nakedly obvious as the months proceed.
Today, Mr Blair is almost in the position of "Dave" in the Kevin Kline film about an ordinary bloke who finds himself impersonating a dead US president and wins over the people because of his unpolitical naivety and directness. It was an American fairytale in the tradition of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the famous 1939 Frank Capra/James Stewart film about a heroically naive Congressman.
These are lost innocence fables, based on the superiority of homey, commonsense values over the corrupted, out-of-touch political elite. (A deep well down which Newt Gingrich is currently dangling his bucket.) We British don't normally go in for this. Weare a more knowing lot and we have a political system in which outsiders can't suddenly arrive at the top.
Yet, in a way, Blair has been seen in the tradition of Dave and Congressman Smith. He became a Labour candidate with relatively little knowledge of the party and has never bothered to steep himself in its culture and internal power system. He doesn't know the code words, or which arm to twist, or who it is wiser to be nice to. Given that he is leader of the Opposition, he remains, strikingly, the outsider, more at home at home than in the House.
This has been a source of strength to him. It allows him to speak his mind more plainly and helps ensure that, when he does so, his mind is nearer in instinct and expression to the vast mass of relatively unpolitical voters whom Labour needs to reach.
But it comes at a price, which the hooded old curmudgeons of Labourism are now demanding, with menaces. For there is no such thing as "New Labour". There is Mr Blair, the fresh face, and his supporters. And there is the Labour Party.
His arrival has not produced a mass Damascene conversion among the few hundreds of thousands of people who comprise the party. Many of them are changing, and have changed, but not primarily because of him. Others have not changed at all and are about as relevant to the Blair project as pre-Copernican scholastics are to astrophysics, mentally inhabiting a world that is gone, one in which there is no strong global economy, no international mobility of labour or capital, in which strong states can deploy powerful and predictable levers, including the ownership of big corporations, for social ends. Nice. Moral. But irrelevant.
So, says Blair, the innocent leader, let us blow the oldspeak away, let us proclaim and celebrate that we are a party of the late Nineties. Let us change the constitution of the party. And - Kabooom! All the resentment and suspicion of the pre-Copernicans about this fresh-faced intruder erupts.
This is a battle Blair needs, a fight he rightly welcomes. But he is likely to find it peculiarly bruising and difficult because a large part of the "defend Clause IV" motivation is as much about Labour distrust of him as it is about nationalisation. Blair, say the leather-faced scholastics, is a closet Tory, a man who won't even commit himself to reversing rail privatisation, a father who sends his children to a "Tory" school.
In short, not one of us. And the awkward thing is that this perception is right, at least in part. Blair is not a Tory, far from it. But he is not one of them, either; he is not a traditional socialist nor a natural Labour man.
He knows it. They know it. So it is unlikely that Blair can ever turn himself into a loved leader. He can be respected, feared, admired; but his toughness, his utter lack of sentimentality and his unconcern about the inner workings of Labour's heart, preclude the warm mutual embrace that John Smith enjoyed.
That is fine; and all leadership is lonely. But this style of it is particularly so. The approval of the polls is a chilly, abstract thing compared with the concrete affection of followers. He is fated to suffer the loneliness of the long-distance runner, of the reformer out ahead, cut off from the gregariousness and common culture of much of the party.
And that means he will have to be particularly careful about the Thatcheresque temptations of such loneliness - inflexibility, over-reliance on advisers, staff, journalistic flatterers, and a lack of attention to the party. This current kerfuffle has allthe signs of a leadership cadre caught on the hop .
It also poses a political problem, one which will become steadily more explicit. What exactly is Blair proposing to the electorate as regards himself and the Labour Party? That they should back him because of his party (still half in love with mysteriousshibboleths Blair himself doesn't understand)? Or that they should back him in spite of that party?
Depositing the world "New" in front of "Labour" is a marketing solution to this conundrum, not a political one. What Blair is gambling on is that out there, in the uncharted waters of the current and potential membership, there is a party of reformers, not simply the old party led by a reformer.
Perhaps. But this is far from self-evidently true: last year the party voted overwhelmingly for Blair's popularity in the country, not for Blair's views. Not that many people have signed up since. My guess is that the most he will be able to achieve is what Thatcher achieved in the Tory party, the creation of a vocal fifth column of radicals inside the party, committed more to the leader than to its corporate identity. To the extent that the political party is an unpopular institution anyway, that mightnot be such a bad thing - though it leaves him vulnerable in hard times.
But even this is still an untested assumption. Blair is tough and hungry, but he can't do it on his own, and he has to remember that. So how much do the "Labour people" out there really want to win? We don't know. He doesn't know. Only one prediction seems entirely safe: this year, we will all find out.Reuse content