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The secret of Mr Blair's success

...is the opposition's failure, argues Jennie Bristow

Tony Blair rides into Ireland on a white charger to broker a peace deal on Good Friday and the press swoons. By Easter Monday, Blair is on holiday in Spain and so is the media, filming him in his all-too-familiar smart casuals, beaming and waving on the TV news, almost as flawless as one of those adolescents in advertisements for spot cream.

As Blair approached the 1 May anniversary of his election, he appeared to be going from strength to strength. Where his predecessor as prime minister, John Major, could do no right, it seems Blair can do no serious wrong. Honeymoons usually last a fortnight if you are lucky; his has been going for a year and shows no immediate signs of coming to an end.

The biggest criticism made of Blair in recent months came from the New Musical Express (NME) in March, when various lesser-known pop stars complained about the government's Welfare to Work schemes. So surprised were the rest of the press by such a rare display of blasphemy that the NME got blanket coverage. But Tony carried blithely on. A blackhead maybe, but certainly not an acne attack.

So how does he do it? As any teenager knows, if you are surrounded by ugly/spotty/socially awkward contemporaries, you can always look more attractive than you really are. Tony Blair's success derives mainly from the fact that everybody opposing him is a loser.

Blair's success cannot be put down to his own policies, which have often been more about spin and PR puff than political substance. His great strength is that, more than at any time in living memory, there is no alternative, no meaningful opposition to the government. Even in her 1980s pomp, Margaret Thatcher's one-party regime had to contend with serious critics among the Tory 'wets'. Blair has nobody to worry about at all.

The Tories on the opposition benches hang around like gawky nerds desperately trying to look like they are part of the in-crowd. Rather than opposing the government, the Opposition's principal aim seems to be to mimic it: witness the pathetic attempts to modernise the Tories along New Labour lines, not least by having a 'young' leader like William Hague, who is capable of raising his embarrassment threshold high enough to wear a baseball cap and 'chill out' at the Notting Hill carnival. The Tories' desperation to appear cool rather than out in the cold means that they are willing to rewrite any policy. So, for example, Scottish devolution was supposed to be a mortal threat to the UK until the government went ahead and introduced it - at which point the Conservatives announced that they, of course, wanted to be a part of it.

Even when they try to have a go at Blair, the best the Opposition can come up with is a tatty caricature of New Labour's own obsession with sleaze. Their glee over Blair's Formula One fiasco ('ha ha ha, now we can call you corrupt too') was reminiscent more of playground teasing than political criticism. And so, of course, it did not work.

If Blair has had to withstand no serious criticism from the Opposition, he has had even less trouble from within New Labour's own ranks. No doubt the spindoctors and apparatchiks have exerted considerable pressure to keep Labour backbenchers in line. But the fact that not one of the new intake among New Labour's 417 MPs has emerged as a dissenting voice suggests that Blair's boys and babes are more than happy just to follow the leader.

Meanwhile, the media occasionally pretends that there really is a debate within New Labour by wheeling out the predictable old lefties, the Dennis Skinners and Ken Livingstones, to grumble about modernisation or cuts. But far from posing a threat to the Blair line, as internal dissenters once did to party leaders, the rump of the old left only serves to maintain New Labour's sense of mission. There is nothing like a grumpy old man to make a youthful pioneer seem like he has got something going for him.

Over the past year, Blair's biggest success has been in insulating himself from any political pressure. He has separated himself from his own party, rising president-like above the political fray so that even when members of his government get into trouble, it does not seem to leave a mark on him. And he has put an insulating wall between himself and the electorate.

For a self-styled champion of 'the People', Blair has put a lot of energy into keeping the people as far away from power as possible. Like a clear-skinned smoothie teenager standing aloof from his spotty classmates, he is to be admired from afar but never touched.

Blair's disdain for the formalities of democratic accountability is demonstrated by his administration's dismissive attitude to parliament. The government benches were barely warm before Blair's people started talking about the need for reform: shortening and sanitising prime minister's question time, reviewing parliamentary privilege and reforming the House of Lords. Fewer and fewer members even deign to turn up in the House of Commons, as various committees discuss how to reform existing procedures to make it easier for the government to get its way and Blair appoints unelected lords to police the behaviour of MPs. Meanwhile, 'the People' are allowed to relate to a marginal Scottish or Welsh parliament, a London mayor, a local council or an obscure focus group, to keep the public's fingers well out of the real business of running the country.

In April, speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd felt obliged to have a go at government ministers about their fondness for using press conferences, leaks and interviews to make policy announcements, rather than first telling the MPs who are supposed to run the country on the people's behalf. Parliament has long been derided as a powerless talking shop; now it seems those with the real power don't even bother going there to talk much any more.

Blair's true attitude towards 'the People' combines populist fawning with private contempt. His office even issued a statement at the end of March demanding that Deirdre (off Coronation Street) be freed from jail. He no doubt thought that this would show his credentials as 'one of us' - and William Hague, in echoing the statement, clearly agreed. But all it really showed was how little regard the popular Mr Blair has for his electorate: that he considers us incapable even of distinguishing between fiction and real life, let alone making important political choices.

'Yes, I watch Corrie too' - Blair meets 'the People'

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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