Poll shock: all men are mortal, even Tony

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THE NATION has finally rumbled that Tony Blair, though an avowedly sincere Christian, is not actually the duo-millennial reincarnation of Jesus Christ the Saviour himself. Until recently, Blair's poll ratings were of a magnitude usually given only to political leaders who have just unleashed a bomb or an army. But an annual survey published last week showed that the percentage of respondents who agree that Mr Blair "has lots of personality" has fallen from 80 per cent to 60 per cent over the year. His "tough" quotient is down from 57 to 42; his "more honest than most politicians" factor is slashed from a triumphal 54 to a tragic 34; and his "arrogance" rating is up from 21 to 29, now standing a full 10 per cent higher than Paddy Ashdown's.

Quelle tristesse. The poor man. How will he live with himself? And what will he tell the boys, and poor Kathryn? The Blair breakfast table must have been a stomach-churning place last Wednesday morning as Tony tried to soften the blow of these terrible findings on three young innocents, now racked with confusion and pain. "Hey. Look kids, I know its not easy for you. Hey, it's hard for me too. In fact, it's going to be hard for all of us. But the fact is that only 60 per cent think I've got lots of personality, and we're just going to have to learn to live with that." How their stoic little faces must have creased with anguish as he told them of the 17 per cent drop in his "understands people like me" score. How heavy must his heart have been as he then trudged the solemn corridors to the office, alone with his political mortality.

The thing to understand about this year's "state of the nation" poll is that the numbers which say interesting things about Blair relate to 12 months ago. His current ratings are those of a very successful, but normal, politician. Last year's figures told the story of a weird, messianic figure who had come down to Earth to save Britain from greyness in general and the Tories in particular. After 16 months in office, the public now knows that if you prick Blair he bleeds. He is not the man they thought he was, but nobody could have been.

Mr Blair's relocation to the mainstream of political life is a good thing for democracy, and for Labour. It is not healthy at the best of times for either a nation or a party to be led by such a popular politician, and Blair is particularly unsuited to be the object of consistent adulation. During his short (15-year) political career his tendency to believe that he is right on a particular subject because he is so clever (and intuitive) has grown in proportion to his increasing success. It is quite natural that Mr Blair should have proceeded by means of what David Hume called induction. As he consistently perceived himself to be making good judgements and thereby gaining advancement, so it came to seem increasingly plausible that he would be right in the future. Blair identifies being right as what management theorists would call one of his core competencies.

It is not necessarily wrong to think like that. There is much evidence that Blair does have good, though not perfect, judgement. But one cannot help but think that an 80 per cent approval rating is a dangerous thing to be lurking in the back of such a mind.

Not that one can say so with utter conviction, because the mind of Tony Blair is an unusually mysterious thing. In 1982 the rightful author of this column published a minor journalistic masterpiece, Brief Lives. The most startling thing about the 29 pen portraits of which it consists - apart from the idiosyncratic but exemplary prose style - is the way Alan Watkins (for it was he) uses trivia to illuminate his subjects. For example, Watkins mentions, entirely out of context, Lady Violet Bonham- Carter's unusual habit of speaking to Roy Jenkins. "Lady Violet used to address him not as `Roy', `Mr Jenkins' or whatever but as `Mr Roy Jenkins', as in `Mr Roy Jenkins, I believe I left my book in the other room. Would you be so kind as to fetch it for me?' "

That Lady Violet Bonham Carter used always to call him "Mr Roy Jenkins" is all one needs to know about the man Watkins calls "the second most successful minister since 1945". In a single artefact of the life of Roy Jenkins the very essence of this complex and unusual character is perfectly encapsulated.

In the case of Lord Jenkins's political godson, Tony Blair, such arrows of perception are extremely rare. The former Daily Mirror journalist Andy McSmith has published a book containing some interesting anecdotal insights, but they do not claim to be more than unconnected snapshots taken from some distance. Despite two biographies, one of them quite scholarly, there are very few other sources of information about Blair's character. He is the least known, least understood politician of the modern era that began with the death of Gaitskell and Wilson's succession.

This phenomenon cannot be explained by reference to the shielded, distant nature of modern political leadership. No person alive is better insulated than the American President, but we do not lack for details that help us better to understand Mr Clinton.

I have my own theories about what makes the Prime Minister so enigmatic, but it would not be pertinent to develop them on this occasion. I simply wish to make the point that surveys which purport to tell us how the electorate feels about Mr Blair should be treated with extra suspicion on the grounds that he is such an elusive character. What people think about someone they do not feel they "know", even from afar, will be likely to change with the wind.

Yet last week's poll does contain two tranches of information which are relevant to the current scene.

First, the public perception that the NHS and schools are getting worse is down by three per cent and five per cent respectively. Those are the kind of statistics that win elections.

Second, Mr Hague's numbers, which by contrast are the kind that lose them. The only category in which his rating exceeds 20 per cent is arrogance, with which trait the electorate perceives him as being somewhat over-generously endowed. The detail of Mr Hague's results is a spin doctor's despair. For "personality" he scores 8 (compared to Blair's 60), for "experience" 9 (to Ashdown's 51), for "understanding" 12, "honesty" 14, "toughness" 17. Not only do these numbers tell a very sad story, they are almost identical to last year's.

If Hague fails to show real improvement over the next 12 months, the world's least loyal band of brothers and sisters - the Parliamentary Conservative Party - will surely have his head.

Without knowing very much about him, the people deified Mr Blair for a few months last year. Now he is just another politician, though a well liked one. Mr Hague, on the other hand, is very easy to read. But unfortunately for him, the people don't like what they see. Better the devil they don't know than the devil they do. As Byron said, "Life, without friends, what cauchemar." What a nightmare.

Sion Simon is associate editor of `The Spectator' and a `Daily Telegraph' columnist.

Alan Watkins is away.

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