The public is fickle and Blair has been smiling too long; Political Commentary

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It is a great mistake to think that nothing ever happens in August. Wars tend to begin then. The last few weeks have seen a break in the political weather in this country. For the first time in many months - more or less, since his election as leader - people no longer believe it is inevitable that Mr Tony Blair will be the next Prime Minister.

Do not misunderstand what has happened. They do not necessarily think Mr John Major will be elected again. The somewhat undignified rush of Conservative MPs to jettison their seats for something safer still continues. Even the party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, has joined in this stampede of shame. Other members, and ministers such as the great Mr Steven Norris (who has or, anyway, had more mistresses than I have usable pairs of shoes), have decided they cannot face five years on the opposition benches, and have resigned their seats altogether. They still think Mr Blair will probably win. The change is that they no longer think it is inevitable. There are several reasons for this.

One of them lies in the way the modern western world treats its famous figures - or, rather, the way in which the newspapers and, more particularly, television treats them on the world's behalf. Some of them admittedly go on for ever. Ms Zsa Zsa Gabor is one, for no good reason I can fathom, but there it is. Her fame will, I predict, turn out to have had a longer span than that of Ms Elizabeth Hurley or even of the Princess of Wales.

Politicians have a shorter run. A few years ago Mr Michael Portillo fluttered before our eyes like a moth. This was before the fiasco of summer last year, when a rich admirer installed telephone lines in a Westminster house in the vain expectation that Mr Portillo would be challenging Mr Major for the leadership. Mr Portillo has yet to recover politically both from this unfortunate episode and also from his even more unfortunate speech at last year's conference, where he claimed personally to have raised the SAS ("Portillo's Own").

Before these unhappy setbacks, however, there had been what can best be described as a Portillo-craze, which was a bit like the craze for sun- dried tomatoes and took hold at around that time. Indeed, the very same people who scoured London for this hitherto unfamiliar foodstuff would inform one in the strictest confidence that they had been told on the best authority that Mr Portillo would be the next leader of the Tory party. At the opera, at the theatre, in expensive restaurants, women - for it was generally women - would say excitedly: "Look, there's Michael Portillo. I'm told he's going to be Prime Minister." In the 1980s the same fate was suffered, equally briefly but on a smaller scale, by Mr John Moore. And what has happened to him? He leads a blameless existence in the Upper House as Lord Moore of Lower Marsh.

The longest spell of favourable attention which a leader of the opposition can expect is between six months and two years. Harold Wilson had a year and eight months. Mr Blair has already been there for over two years. If the next session of Parliament goes according to Mr Major's plans for a quiet life, and the election is held in May 1997, Mr Blair will have been Leader of the Opposition for two years and nine months. This is shorter than the periods of opposition which Lady Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath had to negotiate. They both won their subsequent general elections, in 1979 and 1970 respectively. But they both had a rough time beforehand, even in a party that was more respectful of its leaders then than it is now.

Mr Blair has reached the stage - it is not his fault - when the romance has worn off the marriage, when the smiles flashed in the bedroom are no longer compensation for the dirty socks left in the sitting room. Indeed, voters have taken to saying that he smiles altogether too much. If I were a Tory adman (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I should be drawing the public's attention not to Mr Blair's eyes but to his teeth. Incidentally, I do not think the Labour Party is being a humbug over the poster in question. It has never itself put out anything quite so offensive, at any rate intentionally - though I very much doubt whether it will cause even the most sensitive six-year-old to lose any sleep.

Where the party is being a humbug is over the ennoblement as life peers of the poster's begetters, Mr Maurice Saatchi and Mr Peter Gummer (who is, as it happens, a Labour supporter, or so he once told me). Such peerages have always been dished out on a party basis. They are given, among other categories, to former cabinet ministers, who seem to have established a new constitutional convention that they are automatically entitled to one. They are given also to party apparatchiks such as the former Labour general secretary Mr Larry Whitty, who was nominated by Mr Blair as a kind of consolation prize. Of all the Prime Ministers since the institution of life peerages in 1958, Wilson was the most prodigal.

In his John Smith lecture on constitutional reform, which is permanently by my side in my study, Mr Blair talks of "merit" as the criterion for choosing life peers. This is in the context of suggesting that some form of election to the Lords should be introduced additionally. But merit is now judged exclusively by the political parties. For instance, the Labour peer Lord Williams of Elvel was exalted because he was a chum of Mr Roy Hattersley. Sometimes political patronage produces beneficent consequences, as it has with the Labour Lady Hollis; at other times, not. In any case, it is as objectionable a method of forming a legislative chamber as heredity. For myself, I have long believed in a wholly elected second chamber with drastically increased powers. But this is not on offer.

In the present state of opinion, the temptation for Mr Blair will be to dilute or modify what he is offering, over both the House of Lords and other constitutional matters. He has already done it with Scottish devolution. But the shift which I mentioned at the beginning has not, I think, come about because of Mr Blair's constitutional proposals. His (to many) irritating smile has had more to do with it than his threat to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers.

What has had most to do with it has been the change in the way people seem to regard their financial prospects. I have never been able to see why an inflation in house prices should be regarded as virtuous and an inflation in other prices as vicious. Nor have I ever been able to understand how one type of inflation can exist without the presence of the other as well. In fact they exist together: it is just that the inflation in house prices is more noticeable and more welcome. And a certain amount of inflation helps win an election; or so the Conservatives clearly hope.

I am now off to investigate the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy in the valleys of the the Rhone and the Saone, and shall be back, God willing, for the Liberal Democrat conference, God help us.