How Mr Blair has cut himself down to size

Alan Watkins on politics

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The principal change of the last 12 months is that Mr Tony Blair has been reduced to the level of an ordinary party politician. He remains a highly successful politician. He is the equal, sometimes the master, of Mr John Major at Prime Minister's Questions. In fact (by which I mean, as people generally do when they use the phrase, in my opinion) he is in this respect the most accomplished Leader of the Opposition since Harold Wilson, who inaugurated the vulgarisation of this slice of parliamentary life 33 years ago.

Mr Blair has also done well in his replies to the Budget, the most difficult speech a Leader of the Opposition has to make, because he has had no prior notice of the Chancellor's proposals. This year, admittedly, he had a fairly shrewd idea of what they were, owing to the leak to the Daily Mirror. But in 1995 he possessed no such knowledge and still managed to make a successful speech. He has avoided the set-piece House of Commons confrontation, as Mr Neil Kinnock imprudently did not. But he has been the most assiduous maker of speeches in the country since Wilson again.

All these laudable performances and worthy achievements lose their lustre when set beside the near-universal belief that he is going to win the election and that nothing can now stop him. They may, to be sure, have contributed to this belief. But what counts is the evidence of the opinion polls. The polls may have misled most people in 1992, in February 1974 and in 1970, to name but a few occasions. They are all the politicians have to go on in this confusing world. And they all tell us that Mr Blair is going to win handsomely. Conservatives are going around talking of a landslide, of a Labour majority of at least 100, of (as far as their own party is concerned) meltdown, disintegration and reduction to the state of the Canadian Tories.

And yet the curious thing is this: simultaneously Mr Blair has been brought down to the level of common political humanity. The main agent of this change has been the passing of time. John Smith, who was regarded as a saint (even if he had to die first), was in his job for a year and 10 months. Wilson, perhaps the most formidable Leader of the Opposition in political history, was there for a year and eight months before becoming Prime Minister. On 31 December Mr Blair will have been at his post for two years and five months, no time at all compared to Mr Kinnock's eight years and seven months, but quite long enough for the passionate embraces to be superseded by the dirty socks.

Inside the party what has aroused most disquiet is Mr Blair's authoritarian tendency, or what is seen to be such. The footling, unnecessary new "Code of Discipline" is an example. The hallowed Labour prohibition against making "personal attacks" on colleagues did all that was required. And it seems that Mr Blair or, at any rate, his henchmen have been picking the wrong targets as well. Ms Clare Short is a case in point.

The popular - it may even be the correct - view of Ms Short is that she is a truthful soul who was punished for speaking her mind. There may even be voters who think that she was penalised financially for what had been seen as her indiscretions. This was certainly what many people erroneously believed had been Mr Enoch Powell's fate when he was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet by Sir Edward Heath in 1968. Anyway, Ms Short is seen as a good egg.

So, perhaps more surprisingly, is Mrs Margaret Beckett. Certainly she did well when she was temporarily leader after Smith's death in 1994. But as his deputy in the previous year she had done her very best to scupper his proposals for constitutional change in the party. Altogether she has form as long as your arm in ingratiating herself with the union bosses and with the extreme left, even if they are both now shadows of their former selves. Still, it seems that the voters approve of her as a "real" person, as they do not approve so strongly of Mr Blair's favourites Ms Harriet Harman and Dr Marjorie ("Mo") Mowlam.

Ms Short, by the way, pointed out in a television interview on Newsnight last Thursday that the review of the party's Standing Orders whereby the new Code of Discipline was incorporated also examined the change of 1980 whereby every elected member of the Shadow Cabinet had to be accommodated in the real one. It was believed by some that Mr Blair would either jettison or ignore this requirement. Now it seems he will abide by it. This, according to my calculations, means an initial Labour Cabinet of at least 23 and probably one or two more.

Rather as sterling virtues are being seen in Ms Short and Mrs Beckett at the expense of Ms Harman and Dr Mowlam, so Mr Blair is (according to various polls) viewed as "smarmy" or "insincere". We all know such findings are ridiculous. In a 1965 poll Alec Douglas-Home came out as less sincere than Harold Wilson, but more intelligent. Alas, the latter verdict was no compensation for the former, and Home resigned the leadership of his party in disgust.

Nevertheless, this judgement on Mr Blair is all the Tories have to go on. It may be silly. It may be to do with little more than his perpetual smile. It may even be to do with his receding hairline and incipient bald patch, about which he is uncommonly sensitive, with, it must be said, a certain amount of political justification, for every Prime Minister directly elected since 1955 - Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Major and, of course, Mrs Thatcher - has possessed a good head of hair.

When Mr Blair was elected leader in 1994 and for a long time afterwards, the Conservatives did not know what, if anything, to do with him. One cry was: "He is a leader without principles." Another, often uttered by the same person, was: "He has strong socialist principles which he will put into practice if you let him." Another was: "He has no substance." And yet another was: "He is dangerous."

Now, at last, the Tories can rally round a single slogan: "You can't trust Tony Blair." It is all they have. It suggests also that Mr Major should challenge him to a television debate. Usually it is the Prime Minister who has most to lose by such an encounter. No longer. It is the only chance Mr Major has left.

PS: Never apologise, never explain: but always correct if you get something wrong, as I did last week when I wrote that our MPs would reassemble on 6 January. Not so. They return on the 13th, the loafers. However, my error strengthens rather than weakens the argument that Labour should move the writ for the Wirral South by-election as soon as the Commons come back. Even if Mr Blair breaches convention and does this, the by-election will not be held until 6 February. To satisfy the other, three-month convention, the contest should take place on 30 January at the latest. As it is, the Wirral electors will still have been cheated. Mr Blair can none the less ensure they are cheated by only a few days.

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