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Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007

Page 4 of 17

Blair, the poor PM
Tony Blair did not disappoint those of us who thought him absurd ten years ago. It is hard to figure him as a success. He (and Gordon Brown) raised taxes, and seem to have wasted a good deal of the money. He worked hard for peace in Northern Ireland, as all Prime Ministers do, and when the Northern Irish are good and ready, there may be good government there. It's very hard to see what difference he actually made there, not least because there is real difficulty in assessing whether he is a brilliant negotiator (as some knowledgeable people say) or a useless one (as some others aver).

For much of his premiership Blair proved himself wrong-headed where he wasn't hapless. He did nothing to stop the banning of fox-hunting or fur-farming, probably because he wanted some politically traditional red meat to throw over the back of the sledge to his restive backbenchers. He at first dismantled the Tory legacy in the health service and had, later, messily to reinstate the Tory reforms. On education, health and pensions we can be fairly sure that Blair was in his heart and mind a high-spending Tory of sorts, and only cowardice, confusion and his fear of Westminster and Whitehall stopped him being effective in pressing on with reform. That, and Gordon Brown's deadening hand.

Constitutionally, he devolved power to the fringes, presumably on the assumption that they didn't much matter and that Labour would still rule them really. He began by talking nonsense about the lack of democracy in arrangements for the House of Lords and then, much too late, understood that it would probably be a mistake to make it an elected chamber. That was about the time, in 2003, when he abolished 1400 years of tradition and the office of Lord Chancellor in a press release. Much later, he may have been corrupt in his part in the Cash for Honours saga. His most important failing will never achieve the prominence it deserves. He was frightened of the merits and value of Westminster and - this is too little discussed - of Whitehall. He circumvented them. So what's to like?

The satirists acquit the PM
The oddest thing about Blair is that he remains a mystery, and a personally attractive one. The satirists, for instance, find it hard to pin anything on him. Blair never sorted out his teeth or his hair and was always surprisingly fey. He seems to have a fatal love of flashy villas. He never overcame a certain diffidence when caught on the hop by The People. He could never work out what his accent ought to be. For all his vaunted informality (and in administration it was very damaging), he was best when he had control of the stage. And yet there seems to be rather little to mock. The worst that might be said is that comic writers find him eager, hapless and remote. That's what we saw in portrayals by Robert Lindsay in a rather silly TV show, The Trial of Tony Blair and Anthony Head in Little Britain. The Trial of Tony Blair had little real bite, as the Tony Blair caricature sleepwalks toward condemnation via an appalled visit to a comically awful NHS hospital. In Little Britain, in which the Blair figure was assailed by persistent homosexual badgering, his bemused innocence about homosexuals seems to match what we are told about the real Blair in The Spin Doctor's Diary, by Lance Price, whose antennae we can trust on such matters. [[2]]

Peter Mandelson was at pains to convey to Michael Cockerell his belief that Blair was not so much ruthless as steely, and if true it is an attractive distinction. And yet few of us, and few even of the Prime Minister's reluctant admirers, would follow Mandelson in his assertion that Blair was right to describe himself as "a pretty straight sort of guy". And of course, we feel, most of us, that in this matter neither man is any kind of guide. All the same, Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It rather made the point: it concentrated its ire on apparatchiks like Alastair Campbell and various party gofers, as though Blair himself would not provide much juice.

Michael Sheen gave us a rather new Tony Blair in Stephen Frears' The Queen, as one might perhaps have guessed from his 2003 account of the Granita negotiations in The Deal. This Blair is admirable in parts. The movie seems a plausible account of the Prime Minister's involvement in Diana's obsequies. Granted the anti-Establishment nonsense which he probably believed before he came into office, and the nonsense by which he was probably surrounded (by his own choice of course), he seems to have got the right end of the stick about things. So we had the horror of his remark about Diana's being the "People's Princess" - one of the truly sick-bag moments of our time. But we had, at least as importantly, the evolution in a few days of a man who helped preserve the dignity of the monarchy. Wheatcroft may be right that Tony Blair bullied the Queen, but the outcome was more or less what she and her people needed. (Wheatcroft says Blair pushed himself forward to read a lesson at Diana's funeral, as he was to do later, in the case of the Queen Mother's funeral. Unattractive stuff, to be sure.)

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