Labour's president without precedent

Tony Blair's success - and the internal attacks on him - reflect a basic change in the party
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In middle age, we take ourselves prisoner. Some of us become the prisoners of our failures, walled in by fright and worry. Others, the better or the luckier ones, become the prisoners of our success. The habits and thoughts which worked before harden around us. We lose our flexibility, our openness to serious challenge; we become proud of our prison.

Over this first summer of criticism of Tony Blair's leadership, the only question about him which should interest voters is whether he will make himself the prisoner of his early success. He has, after all, had an astonishing run, changing policies, remodelling the party, strengthening his own position, exiling critics.

Now, during the long hot weeks when politics takes its annual holiday, the smouldering anti-Blair discontent among lefties and traditionalists has found its voice. Or voices, rather, from the waspish critique of Bryan Gould and John Edmonds to the bass blast from Roy Hattersley. Unease has been made explicit and the Hatt is out of the bag. The young leader is attacked for being everything from a Stalinist to a latter-day convert to the SDP - a weird political monster with the heart of Zhdanov and the world-view of Roy Jenkins.

And though some of the raised voices don't matter (step back a few paces, Richard Burden MP) the gathering together of union leaders and former Shadow Cabinet names, on top of a much wider rumble of discontent, is impossible to ignore. Critical mass? Not quite - but a critical blob at least.

I have a pretty good idea of how worried Blair is by all this. He is not at all worried. For one thing, he knows that the criticism is not coming from the cluster of people who matter but from people who have mattered - or who never will. For another, he knows he is right and they are wrong. This is not a man who wanders about dazed by self-doubt.

He lies in the French sunlight and hears not hurtful attacks but merely a dissonant Miserere chorus of the defeated. The union leaders have fought and lost the argument in the party over the use of state borrowing and spending to boost employment. Bryan Gould wisely changed careers and countries because he was not only defeated but isolated over macro-economic policy. Roy Hattersley is on more party-popular ground in defending comprehensive state education; but even he appeals to the activists more than the voters. The hard left has been - to use one of their favourite words - ''smashed''.

These things are not going to change between now and the election, or for long afterwards. There are useful arguments to have about how to encourage higher levels of employment. But there is no serious possibility that Blair's New Labour will engage in large-scale, neo-Keynesian policies, or abandon its Europeanism, or remove some parents' freedoms about which schools their children go to. The party has made its choices and, for the time being, it will live with them.

But at this point it is worth casting a sidelong glance at the Conservative experience, which reminds us that just because a group of dissenters lacks coherence and has no chance of success doesn't mean it has no impact on politics. The Tory anti-Maastricht faction doesn't have an alternative to the EU, or not one they could agree on. They are a mixed bunch - mixed in motive, mixed in outlook. But even so, they came close to destroying John Major's administration.

And the anti-Blairites, like the anti-Majorites, will find that anything they lack in numbers and volume is made up by that great amplification device known as the national press.

The second and more substantial point is that the dissidents have spotted a fundamental change in the nature of the Labour Party, which is that it has become presidential. Never in Labour history has the leader mattered so much and the lesser lights, both in the parliamentary party and outside it, mattered so relatively little.

This ups the ante. Over the past year, the intensity and self-certainty of the leader's office has been a formidable source of Labour strength. It is the ''why'' of Blair's early success. A Tony Blair who had gone out of his way to placate Bill Morris and who had tempered his education policy after a quiet lunch with Roy Hattersley would not be the popular emblem of hope he is today. He would not seem his own man.

Presidential politics has shown up the weakness in Number 10 and communicated the sense of direction the country wants to believe Labour has. But it has its dangers, too; this is a heavily charged, intense, combustible form of politics.

The biggest danger is that a president is surrounded by aides, not by other politicians. Aides, being utter subordinates, hired people, may have the freedom to speak frankly to the leader in private. But they don't, in general, tackle the big political questions. Their criticisms are limited to presentation and tactics. It takes politicians to have the necessary arguments about policy without which governments lose the flexibility they need for long-term survival.

Labour's periods of success have, up to now, always involved a certain amount of group leadership. The Attlee administration remains the classic example, though few premiers have been as personally retiring or enjoyed such a glitter of rival cabinet talent. But even Harold Wilson, an arch- manipulator and kitchen cabinet man, depended heavily on a cluster of key ministers. What would his administrations have been without Barbara Castle, Crosland or Healey?

In the same way, a Blair administration would, in practice, stand or fall not just on his own judgement but also on the quality of relations between himself and Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and John Prescott. (Others will come and perhaps establish themselves in the leading group, but for the time being these are the essential ones.)

Blair needn't be worried about what earlier generations of Labour politicians, whose years were marked by failure, now think of what he is trying to do. Nor need he be worried about left-wing MPs complaining about cliques in the leader's office. But he needs to be very sensitive to the impact of the power and influence of his semi-presidential office on those key politicians.

In private, he is likelier approvingly to quote Cook, Brown or Prescott than to cite his own advisers. But there is already a closeness, a passionate intensity in the cluster of rivals around Blair which wants watching. This is an issue where perception matters as much as cold fact. If most Labour MPs believe that Peter Mandelson matters more than the whole of the Shadow Cabinet, then this will damage Blair in the eyes of his essential colleagues, whether or not it's true - which it isn't.

Getting the balance right between the leader's personal team and the grumbling, jealous parliamentary party is a job too tricky ever to get quite right. But the feeling of exclusion and bafflement felt by sections of the party is a warning sign for Blair, just when things have been going almost too well - a faint chill breeze in paradise which is worth a moment's thought.