The Prufrock PM

The best is behind, and an end is in sight
October 19, 2003

Martin Amis once remarked that, when you reach the end of your thirties, "you realise that you are switching from saying 'Hi' to saying 'Bye.''' It's not that you are about to die. It's just that you suddenly grasp you have turned the corner of life, to confront, not the imminence of mortality, but its inevitability.

I think that Tony Blair, to adapt the Amis aper?u to politics, is starting to say "'Bye." By this I do not mean that he is about to be toppled in a coup led by Clare Short, Glenda Jackson and Tony Woodley; nor that Gordon Brown has persuaded him to step down after the next election. It is possible that we shall have seven more years of this prime minister.

No, I mean something different. Compare the image of the Blair who swept into Downing Street on 2nd May 1997 with the image of the Blair who arrived at the Hutton inquiry on 28th August. One is a man bursting with freshness and immunised by naivete. The other is a careworn globetrotter, six years into his premiership, compelled by someone's suicide to defend the conduct of his government in a war that would have itself seemed unthinkable in 1997 as he swayed to "Things Can Only Get Better.'' The first Blair was astonished to find himself a participant in history. The second is a man who talks about history in a different sense-brooding over posterity's verdict upon what he has done and what he still hopes to do.

One thing is already certain: Blair's legacy will not be what he intended. Take the so-called "new politics," for example, his ambition to forge a grand centre-left coalition with the Lib Dems. The "full monty,'' as he and Paddy Ashdown used to call it, is now a distant memory, as is the promised referendum on a new electoral system at Westminster. The prospect of Britain joining the euro, meanwhile, has rarely seemed more remote. The only force which could have shifted public opinion on the euro in this parliament-the voters' trust in Blair-has been spent on Iraq instead.

On public service reform, the great "moderniser'' has proved to be nothing of the sort. He grumbles to colleagues that Margaret Thatcher "had it much easier'' because the changes she implemented were by their nature revolutionary and sudden-tax cuts, privatisation, council house sales, crushing the unions-whereas the improvement of education, health and welfare provision is necessarily incremental and slow. That may be so, but the more striking feature of his education and health policies has not been their pace, but the ideology that underpins them. True, there has been rebranding and tinkering but the holy writ of Nye Bevan in health and Anthony Crosland in education has rarely been contravened, still less torn up. For all Blair's talk of reforms which match the needs of the new century, the public services over which he presides are still fundamentally based on the system of the last: queuing, rationing and uniformity.

One part of the Blair blueprint which has gone to plan is his ambition to get re-elected. Barring an unforeseen disaster, he will achieve the historic goal of a full second term, never before accomplished by a Labour government. It is fashionable in some quarters of Blair's party-about three quarters, actually-to say that his obsession with re-election has become a burden. Blair's fixation with campaigning, the media, and the "daily mandate'' is said to be a fatal distraction from the tasks which should properly occupy a Labour prime minister. But those who say this are wrong.

Blair's sometimes manic quest for the elusive second term was an end in itself. The restoration of the Labour party to electability, after nearly 20 years in the wilderness, was a matter of content, as well as form. It made the two-party system meaningful again. And, along the way, it has transformed Britain's political landscape, its constitutional structure and the composition of its governing elite. When Blair became leader there were 270 Labour MPs; today there are 409. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, this is not to be sniffed at.

Nor, I think, will the scorn currently poured upon Blair's foreign policy endure. My own view is that he will be seen as a politician of considerable courage when the true audit of the "war on terrorism'' is conducted 50 years hence. It was one of Blair's greatest insights-perhaps his greatest-to grasp the implications of 11th September and to perceive the threat to global security from the convergence of fundamentalist terror and WMD. The liberation of Iraq was a new form of war: a "pre-emptive'' strike on a rogue state which had refused to play by the international rules on WMD. The conflict's aftermath has been bitter and messy, but it was a war that had to be fought.

The war will, in fact, do much to define how Blair is remembered, whatever else he achieves, or fails to achieve. His detractors will say that the war epitomised his administration's pathological relationship with the truth, his "cowardly deference" to America and his self-righteous contempt for the reservations of his own party. His advocates, meanwhile, will look back on the war as the moment when Blair's core values truly surfaced-let justice be done though the heavens fall-and moral focus took over from focus groups.

Either way, this is not what one would have foretold on 2nd May 1997. The days of Cool Britannia, pop stars at No 10 and the "new dawn" seem a very long time ago indeed. His premiership was meant to be about the quality of life, just as Margaret Thatcher's was about the standard of living. In fact, his most remarkable achievements have been on the international stage. My sense is that he finds this rather perplexing and is torn between accepting the role which destiny has carved out for him-winner of elections and wars-or rebelling against the fates, clinging to office long enough to have a crack at the euro, and to try to see his public service reform agenda through. Does he feel "a sense of an ending" - mindful of the fact that ten years seems to be the maximum that modern electorates can bear the sight of one leader's face - or will the (underestimated) Blair stubbornness kick in as he sees an army of Brownites looming on the crest of the hill?

That, of course, is the factor which disfigures the "after Blair" debate-the resistance one faction has to handing power over to another. There is an increasingly settled view in the Labour party that a Brown premiership would be radically different, more substantial, more authentically Labour. No doubt there would be a greater emphasis on reducing poverty and inequality: "fairness of outcome" is the new Brownite phrase. No doubt Prime Minister Brown would be less inclined to engage in foreign adventures. But a lot of rubbish is talked about what Brown would do in the top job. He is different to Blair, but he is not the anti-Blair that many in his party crave.

That craving is instructive, all the same. It tells you that the Labour organism senses a change in the political season, from summer to autumn. The party knows that change must come, even if it does not come tomorrow. I think Blair will be remembered as a remarkable prime minister, which is not quite the same as a great one. Mostly, the reasons for which he will be remembered will not be those he would have chosen. Could Blair be the Prufrock prime minister? The man who looks back in years to come and says: "That is not what I meant at all."