Profile: The man most likely to succeed: Tony Blair, seriously modern shadow Home Secretary

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The Independent Online
THESE are early days, but, by common consent, Tony Blair, Labour's arch-revisionist, is the MP most likely to succeed John Smith. 'If Tony wins, the baton really will have passed to a new generation,' according to one of the many admirers of the boyish 41-year-old MP for Sedgefield, a former mining area in County Durham.

It is a powerful point. That nice young Mr Blair carries precious little Labour baggage. He is a rock-loving, tennis-playing, Oxbridge-educated, public-school Christian, serious about reform but lacking the ideological and class hang-ups which preoccupied a previous generation of Labour big shots.

By the time Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Parliament in 1983, the Social Democrats had already broken away from Labour, hit their peak of popularity and were in what was to prove terminal decline. Labour, in contrast, had reached rock bottom and was starting the long, march back to electability.

Not for Mr Blair, then, the historic quarrels that had scarred both John Smith and Neil Kinnock. Coming from traditional Labour families, their roots and resentments inevitably went far further back.

Blair was born in 1952, by which time the post-war Attlee administration was history. His schoolboy memories are of union intransigence destroying the Wilson government in the late Sixties. But Labour's internecine struggles meant little to the young Blair. His father, Leo, was of working-class origins but, if anything, a premature Thatcherite. He was the son of a Clydebank shipyard rigger, had a good war, came out of the Army, took two degrees and moved to Durham, where he practised with success as an industrial lawyer and became chairman of the local industrial tribunal. His achievements would apparently have been crowned by a political career - as a Conservative - had he not suffered a stroke while Tony was still at school.

Though Blair senior did not provide a lasting ideology for his son, he did give him an impeccable upper middle- class education. From Durham Choristers School young Tony went as a scholar to Fettes College, perhaps the grandest (and at that time the strictest) public school in Scotland. His own over-modest assessment is that he 'did not shine at anything'.

In fact his housemaster, Dr Eric Anderson, now headmaster of Eton, talks with affection of Blair as 'a lively and memorable all-rounder - you always knew if he was in the room, if only because of the outbreaks of schoolboy mischief'. Blair was, according to Anderson, 'a very courageous rugby fly-half, a good actor and someone who spoke verse so well that I made him Mark Antony in Julius Ceasar years before he should have got the part'.

Half-jokingly, Anderson muses whether the 'Friends, Romans, countrymen' speech, coupled with the red-trimmed toga that his wife made for Blair, gave the lad an early taste for Labour politics.

If so, it has to be said that progressive politics was not allowed to get in the way of the temptations of Oxford in the early Seventies. Blair claims to recall looking at the works of Trotsky in a desultory manner while reading law at St John's, but he did not join the Union and took no part in student politics.

riends recall Tony as 'a chap with with shoulder-length hair and a cigarette in his hand, always clowning about in group photographs'. They note with admiration the skill he demonstrated climbing into and out of college late at night in search of entertainment. He played guitar Grateful Dead-style in a rock group led by Mark Ellen, who went on to present the Old Grey Whistle Test and to edit Q magazine, and he dated some of the most attractive female undergraduates of his generation.

There is some conflict about Blair's sense of purpose at this time. Some say he was drifting. Others disagree. 'I always knew that he would be successful,' says a friend. 'He positively oozed ambition. But I had no idea what he was going to be successful at - and neither did he.' Another says that Blair had drawn up a timetable of career moves leading to 10 Downing Street, as detailed as that which, so it is claimed, the young Michael Heseltine showed Julian Critchley when they were at Oxford 20 years earlier.

But there is no doubt that Blair got religion at Oxford, and it gave him the social conscience and sense of community that now inform his politics. He is a practising High Anglican, while his wife, Cherie Booth (daughter of the Scouse actor Tony Booth), takes her Roman Catholicism equally seriously. Their three children, Euan, Nicky and Kathryn attend a well-regarded, rather trendy Church of England primary school in Islington, north London.

After Oxford, Blair - still an apolitical animal - charmed his way into a pupillage at the chambers of the eminent, Labour-supporting, industrial lawyer 'Derry' (now Lord) Irvine. The story goes that there was no vacancy because Derry had just taken his one pupil for the year, said to be one of the most brilliant young lawyers of her generation. But Blair was so persistent that Derry stretched a point. Once in chambers, the young man found himself seated opposite Cherie Booth.

It was under Cherie Booth's and Irvine's influence that Blair finally signed up with the Labour Party in 1975, convinced that it was the most appropriate vehicle for his social conscience and his Christian concept of community (a phrase he uses often).

Eight years on, he found himself fighting the unwinnable Tory seat of Beaconsfield in a by-election during the Falklands war. It was as tough a blooding as one could wish for. A year later, shortly before the general election of 1983, Blair won the safe Labour seat of Sedgefield.

A group of local party activists, worried about the influence of the far left, and the prospect of the party tearing itself apart, adopted Blair as their compromise condidate because he was young, charming and relatively uncommitted. It took a fight to force his name on to the shortlist, but once he had got that far his position was unassailable.

In the House, nice young Mr Blair, alert, eager, polite and helpful, became something akin to the school prefect of Labour's Class of '83. He did all the right things as far as Neil Kinnock and, later, John Smith were concerned, and he charmed all but the hardest of the hard left.

Blair rose rapidly through Labour's ranks, holding shadow Treasury, trade and industry and employment posts. His intellect, his ability, his application and above all his sheer niceness were beyond question. But some questioned whether he had the determination, the nous or the vision to rise to the very top.

The first sign that Blair had a ruthless streak came in 1989 when, as employment spokesman, he junked Labour's historic support for the closed shop, which had alienated many working people as well as members of the middle class from the party.

One quiet Sunday Blair told members of his constituency party that the closed shop was incompatible with Labour's respect for the individual and in any case in conflict with European Community law. He made sure that the press received a copy of his remarks.

Blair could have been sacked for ignoring his leader, flouting conference policy and tweaking the noses of the big union bosses. Instead, Kinnock privately congratulated him on a brave job, well done. But the unions have never forgiven him and a number of union barons are likely to campaign for Blair's friend and possible rival, Gordon Brown, MP for Dunfermline East, in the leadership contest.

Blair went on to draw up plans for his own version of a one member, one vote, mass party based on a nominal membership fee and open access to all party meetings. A mass party, he believes, is the only substitute for union control which he is convinced costs Labour votes.

Recently, Blair has found himself making the running in the law and order debate. More than any other member of the shadow cabinet he has been responsible for turning crime and punishment into Labour issues. His rubric 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' may sound all-things-to-all-people (Dennis Skinner calls him 'a sound-bite merchant') but it has resonance from council estates to leafy suburbia.

Last year Blair told the Independent: 'People have a right to go about their business unmolested and a right not to have their homes broken into and not to be attacked and assaulted. This is an invasion of civil liberties . . . and it is our duty to deal adequately with people who are engaged in this kind of anti-social conduct.'

Again, such remarks are neither particularly novel nor unduly radical. (Blair says that he found many of his ideas in speeches by Attlee's ministers in the Forties.) But to employ the language of civil liberties on behalf of the victims of crime would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago when, for the more extreme Labour activists, civil liberties were violated not by criminals but by the police.

Labour's next leader will be chosen using a procedure that does away with the block vote, and involves MPs, all party members and Labour-supporting trade unionists voting individually and secretly. It was designed by John Smith - with considerable prompting from Blair - to break the power of fundamentalists such as Dennis Skinner and the older generation of union bosses. The new procedure enhances Mr Blair's chances of success.

But his problems will begin if, as expected, he does become leader. There are battles to be fought on economic policy, on taxation and the targeting of benefits, and on the role of the unions under a Labour government. Because he is not a Labour man born and bred, the old guard will be more suspicious of him than they were of John Smith or Neil Kinnock. Tony Blair will need more than boyish charm to push through the reforms he deems essential if he is eventually to move into 10 Downing Street.

(Photograph omitted)