British politics has been frozen in a kind of reiterative cycle ever since Black Wednesday 1992: the Conservatives becalmed at 30 per cent in the polls, the Liberal Democrats making stealthy gains, New Labour dominant. Just six weeks ago there seemed some reason to believe that the Iraq war would bring some fluidity to this tedious state of affairs. Not so. The recent conflict has left everything the same; only more so.
This means that Tony Blair has never been as strong or enjoyed so much freedom of action as is the case this weekend. The defeat of Saddam has granted him what comes the way of very few prime ministers: the chance to reinvent his premiership. Whether he is capable of making use of this opportunity remains to be seen; so far the initial signs are discouraging.
It is characteristic of the Prime Minister that, while publicly disavowing triumphalism, he should simultaneously endeavour to extract every last ounce of political advantage from the immediate result of the conflict against Saddam. His interview with the Sun last Friday – repeated word for word, for reasons which remain obscure, in the Daily Telegraph the following day – ranks as one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Blair premiership so far, which is saying a great deal.
The melodramatic description of how he gathered his family around him ahead of the Commons vote on the war to warn them that he might lose his job was peculiarly blush-making. One can only guess what led the Prime Minister – normally so protective of his privacy – to disclose the details of this intimate family occasion. Perhaps he was trying to exaggerate the political dangers that he faced on the eve of war. In truth, there was never the faintest chance that the government could have been defeated, and the Prime Minister consequently forced to quit, though there was indeed a remote possibility that he might have been obliged to rely on Tory votes for survival.
More disturbing still was the Prime Minister's decision to wallow in his own private emotions about an ugly conflict which resulted in the deaths of 31 British servicemen as well as thousands of Iraqis. This unburdening showed the same incorrigible lack of taste, and even common humanity, which caused him earlier to claim that two British soldiers, whose families had been carefully informed by their commanding officers that they had been killed in action, had been executed.
The motives are plain. New Labour strategists have been obsessed, since long before the Iraqi conflict, with the Thatcher myth – or, to use the vogue word they prefer, narrative. Certain members of Blair's entourage desperately want this victory in Iraq to do for Tony Blair what the Falklands did for Margaret Thatcher. But the comparison is out of place. The Falklands was a discrete conflict, fought against all the odds, to recover British territory that had been invaded by a foreign power. Iraq was the opposite case. The circumstances of the war are inseparable from the immense complexities of the Middle East, and the coalition enjoyed the benefit of overwhelming force, while we were ourselves the aggressor. In the Falklands the war aims were luminously clear; in Iraq they are cloudy even in the aftermath of war. British troops alone fought in the Falklands, while in Iraq we were a junior partner. Above all, the overwhelming challenge in Iraq, unlike the Falklands, was not winning the war itself: securing the subsequent peace is the intractable problem.
History shows that even successful attempts to meddle in countries where we have no business can have tragic, unforeseen consequences – think of what followed from the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It may well be a decade or more before anyone can feel confident that the Iraq adventure has been vindicated. Till then, for all the marvellous heroism of British men-at-arms, all talk of victory parades is premature. The fall of Baghdad is such an ambiguous and poorly understood event that it will remain impervious to any kind of confident analysis or final verdict for some time to come.
The government now faces two distinct challenges. The first, of course, is the reconstruction of Iraq, while the second remains the reconstruction of Britain. Labour swept to power six years ago with a series of promises to rebuild public services. They have all been broken. As far as Tony Blair is concerned, the central paradox of six years in office is stark: the levers of power respond with alacrity in defence and foreign affairs, and yet government is all but powerless in the domestic arena.
It is worth pondering this contradiction, made sharper by the military victory in Iraq. It raises two fascinating questions. Why do British armed forces, with their meagre £25 billion budget, always deliver? But why do the NHS and the education system, though in receipt of unlimited amounts of public money, continue to fail? To put the problem in another way: how come the simple British squaddie – though underpaid, overworked and forced to carry out his or her duties in conditions of appalling danger – always rises to any challenge? But how come so many British schoolteachers, rather better paid, with far shorter hours and long holidays, endlessly whinge and – as the teachers' union conference demonstrated yet again – block even quite sensible reforms?
If Tony Blair could solve this conundrum, he really would have a claim to be a great prime minister. Again and again he has relied on the stoicism and courage of ordinary soldiers for his successes. Shrinking back from tackling the hopeless inefficiency of the public sector has been responsible for his failures. The health, transport and, above all, the teaching unions are full of Labour members, and the Prime Minister has balked.
There is, however, some reason to hope that the Prime Minister is not quite the empty, vainglorious, narcissistic creep who emerged from last week's interview with the Sun. Living through a war like Iraq ought to have changed Tony Blair; reminded him of what really matters. It should have reminded him of the foolishness of the political spin machine that he imported to Downing Street in 1997. There are indeed certain anecdotal suggestions that the meretricious collection of fixers which the Prime Minister imported to Downing Street in 1997, and which has done so much to diminish his premiership, now carries less weight. Serious people, loyal to the crown and not merely to the New Labour faction, are now listened to with growing seriousness.
It must be hoped that this is the case, because Tony Blair has been given a wonderful chance. The next six months, not the last six years, will surely determine the shape and destiny of the Blair premiership.