THE PRIME Minister has just announced that he is not a control freak, a gesture guaranteed to have the opposite effect to its stated purpose. Rather like film stars telling the newspapers that their marriage is not in trouble, there would be no need to deny the allegation were there not a hard nub of truth in it.
"If control freakery means strong leadership," wrote Mr Blair in Friday's Independent, "then I plead guilty." That is on the same lines as parents telling their teenage children: "If caring about whether you get raped or murdered staying out so late is being too strict, then I'm happy to be called strict." It does not deny the allegation. It merely restates a negative as a positive.
Of course, it is stark, staring obvious to anyone that Mr Blair is a control freak, imbued with great self-belief and insistent that others conform to his vision. It is equally obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Labour Party that it needs to be controlled. It has, so many times in its history, had the right instincts and the wrong responses and policies. Badly led, it still would have. It needs a Fuhrer, and now it has got one.
Mr Blair came to power after John Smith's death by staging a bold coup from a tiny power-base of fellow believers which wanted to see the Kinnock- Smith reforms accelerated and the whole style and message of Labour radically changed to reflect the ambitions and fears of the electorate. The party backed him, once Gordon Brown had done the decent thing, but that does not mean that it warmed to him. Given that its past form meant choosing unelectable leaders it did feel warm about, that is nothing to be ashamed of. But it does mean that Mr Blair has little emotional credit in the bank with his own party and, to put it crudely, that he should watch his back.
In his new book The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Mr Blair's key strategist and pollster, gives the clearest account yet of the visceral nature of the arch modernisers' distance from the traditions, beliefs and folk-lore of the Labour Party. "Labour was born of idealism and vision ... but it is also a party created by a culture of caution and deference with an overbearing sense of its past, fuelled by a sense of destiny accepting glorious defeat and fearing awful betrayal."
That is an unusually honest sentence, bracingly so since it uses the present tense, rather than suggesting that a bright, forward-looking New Labour is fully accepted by its members today and that the old instincts have gone. They have not. Mr Blair has defeated Old Old Labour. But a potentially more powerful split is developing between the shock troops of New New Labour, who want to keep on changing and modifying, shedding ideological baggage as they go, and Old New Labour, which has come a long way under his tutelage, but which distrusts his plans for welfare reform, his social conservatism and his suspicion of the trade unions and Labour local authorities.
Mr Blair has far less to fear from the Tories - wherever they may be - than from his own party: and most of all those who proclaim themselves as modernisers, yet entertain the notion that New Labour can fulfil its old egalitarian dreams by some mystical sleight of hand.
Far more interesting than the arguments about whether Ken Livingstone should be kept off the short-list for London mayor is that Mr Blair believes that he cannot trust the Greater London Labour Party not to vote for Mr Livingstone above a modernising candidate. London has had the greatest turn-over in membership since Mr Blair became leader. But the signs are that even the new, younger members entertain more sentimental notions about the blessed Ken than is comfortable in Downing Street.
In the relationship between the Labour Party and its leader, fear - on both sides - is the key. Watch the Prime Minister with a party audience and you are instantly aware of a certain anxiety in their responses. The willingness to please him is tinged with a nervousness born of not knowing what he will do next and how on earth they will square it with their previous beliefs.
Mr Blair, for his part, is known to loathe party business, which he delegates to Margaret McDonagh, a General Secretary so tough she appears to have been laminated in a back room at Millbank, and to Sally Morgan, his quietly capable political secretary. His attention span for party matters is famously short - so much so that there are stories of him whispering to Ms Morgan every five minutes at meetings on internal matters, "Can I go yet?"
But he should not go until he has forged a party in his own likeness. One of the great supports of Margaret Thatcher's popularity was that she was just like a lot of shrill, determined, radical Tory activists - only more so. There are not enough little Blairs out there to keep big Mr Blair happy.
Yet when the Prime Minister comes - as he must soon - to even more adventurous changes in education and the NHS than have so far been discussed openly, he will need all the help he can get against the many senior siren voices of the past who will claim that he is destroying Labour's heritage. Devolution magnifies New Labour's problems where it is most vulnerable. In Wales, its imposition of a centrally approved candidate to replace the self-immolated Ron Davies exposes it to accusations of centralised meddling. In Scotland, where Labour is riven with in-fighting and unconvinced by Mr Blair, it does not yet seem to have a strategy to ward off the cocksure Scottish nationalists in the first elections to the Scottish parliament next year.
Mr Blair's good fortune and his electoral trump card is that there are millions of Blairites in Britain, who share his belief that Britain must be a fairer, more meritocratic place and who are wholly uninterested in past totems or dusty taboos. He now needs to recruit more of them in his own ranks for the battles ahead.
The Prime Minister once said that he would know that New Labour had triumphed when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson. I don't know, as the great political analyst Tina Turner said, what love's got to do with it, but my hunch is that the sexual outing of Mr Mandelson has served to make him appear more human and better liked. In a funny, mixed-up kind of way, the party is getting rather fond of Peter, the classiest cameo role in New Labour's epic drama. Mandy is not the problem. New Labour will only be truly secure when the party learns to understand Tony Blair. That still needs work.
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