Peter Oborne

The leader we deserve

In his hypocrisy, muddle and evasion, Tony Blair holds a mirror to our comfortable suburban culture, says Peter Oborne

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No British prime minister has dominated the landscape so obviously, with so little obvious effort or for so long, as Tony Blair. You can check through the lists fruitlessly as far back as they go to find a comparable example. Maybe Palmerston, who attained power only in ripe old age, enjoyed a comparable period of popularity during the high Victorian epoch, but even that assertion is open to debate.

Before the emergence of Tony Blair, certain rules were assumed to be immutable. It was axiomatic that governments, in-between general elections, faded in the polls. It was taken for granted that the Conservative party was a formidable electoral machine, but within a two-party system. All of these doctrines - the mid-term unpopularity of governments, the inevitability of the Conservative party recovery, the two-party system - have been disproved by Tony Blair. He has established what amounts for the time being to a one-party state. New Labour in power has generated both government (No. 10) and opposition (Gordon Brown and his coterie).

When he was elected Prime Minister in 1997 at the age of 43, Tony Blair was the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. Even now, approaching the veteran stage after nearly six years in office, he remains the fourth youngest member of his Cabinet (he is a few months older than Alistair Darling and Geoff Hoon, while Alan Milburn, at just 44, is the baby of the Cabinet). He is the first prime minister since Russell 150 years ago to father a legitimate child while in Downing Street, and the first Labour prime minister ever to lead his party towards two successive full terms of office.

After six years most prime ministers become arrogant, tired, out of touch. Think of John Major in 1997 or Harold Wilson in 1976. Harold Macmillan was exhausted after his six years, James Callaghan after three. Margaret Thatcher retained her energy, though not her equilibrium. Blair retains - greatly to the dismay of the Chancellor of the Exchequer - all of his energy and appetite for the job. After the death of John Smith he held out to Gordon Brown the prospect - the Brown camp took this as a promise - that he would step down as Prime Minister at the age of 50, leaving the Chancellor to take over. Perhaps Tony Blair really meant what he said at the time. Back then his fiftieth birthday must have seemed a long way off. It arrives in May, and there is no prospect at all that he will stand down. If he attempted to do so, the British people might not let him. We like having him as Prime Minister and most of us consider that he does the job exceptionally well. He makes us feel good about ourselves.

Most modern prime ministers have entered Downing Street in advanced middle age, when emotionally and politically set in their ways. Not so Blair, who had never been a minister before entering No. 10, the first premier since Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 to find himself in this position. Blair has had to learn on the job. During Tony Blair's first term of office, Philip Gould, the Downing Street political consultant, was fond of saying, 'If you think this guy's good now, just see him in two years' time.'

Tony Blair is more confident now, and more remote. Many who were with him at the start - Peter Mandelson, Anji Hunter - have gone or faded. He relies less than before on those who remain. Government, for him, has lost many of its terrors. To begin with Blair was scared of the Tories, but now he feels only a dull contempt. He used to be hesitant in Parliament, and dreaded his weekly encounters with William Hague. Now he is at ease, and a smile plays around his lips as he answers questions on the front bench. Like Harold Wilson, he was no natural parliamentarian. Long experience has taught him mastery of the house. Some Labour MPs believe that he gives Iain Duncan Smith an easy time of it these days because party strategists do not want a change in the Tory leadership before the general election.

Even Gordon Brown, a more formidable opponent by far than the Tories, and who this week masterminded a fresh revolt over top-up fees for university education, no longer frightens the Prime Minister in the way he once did. For some years after becoming Labour leader, Blair automatically deferred to Brown. Not any more: he has learnt to exercise his own judgment. It is no longer inconceivable that Blair will sack Brown. Both men know that a decisive moment will come during the Cabinet reshuffle the day after the next general election.

Tony Blair brings the X-factor into British government, and is the key to Labour's prodigious electoral success. He is one of the most successful prime ministers of all time. But he cannot be called one of the greatest. Great prime ministers - Thatcher, Churchill, Attlee, Gladstone - mould their times. Tony Blair is a creature of his. He is the perfect leader for our comfortable and suburban age. Like a mirror, he reflects straight back to us our snobberies, hypocrisies, aspirations, fears and deceits. To write about Tony Blair is to write about the British people: something that can be said of no recent prime minister, though Baldwin comes close.

One key to this is Tony Blair's Christianity. It is well-meaning, sincere, yet barren of content: very like the Blairite interpretation of Britain or idea of socialism. The Prime Minister has distilled Britain's bloody and truculent past into a handful of bland and uncontroversial virtues, like tolerance and fair play. Socialism, that great creed for which millions were murdered, has been implausibly converted into a poorly worked-out sense of generalised goodwill. Though Tony Blair now toys with Rome, his Christianity is in the autochthonous Anglican tradition: it consists of a warm glow of belief, stripped bare of difficulty, discipline or theological imperatives. On the right to life or family values, for instance, the Prime Minister unswervingly takes the side of modern feminist dogma against long-established Church doctrine. There is a whiff about Blair of Pelagius, the fourth-century British theologian who denied the Augustinian doctrine of total depravity and original sin, opening out the prospect of salvation through mere benevolence.

This easy morality is perfect for a spoilt and materialistic generation. Blair offers a contemporary version of Victorian hypocrisy: moral purpose which makes powerful demands neither on himself nor on the voters. The British middle classes want to enjoy the material benefits of capitalism and yet feel virtuous. That is the secret: Thatcherism with a public conscience. The contradiction is overwhelming, but Blair magically resolves it, mainly because we want him to do so. The British people want to be led - but taken nowhere. And that is a Blair speciality. The Prime Minister makes us feel good about ourselves, but behind it all there is an ethical miasma that makes no searching demands. These are the truths about the dark little deal with the British people which has turned Tony Blair into the most successful prime minister of modern times.

This deal explains the contradictions within New Labour. For years political opponents have waited for this industriously assembled coalition of ideas and interests to collapse. Tony Blair is America's greatest ally, yet promises to be 'at the heart of Europe'. He is at home with the rampant populism of the News of the World, yet makes his peace with the high-minded Hampstead Left. He demands high standards, and tolerance. He runs a centralising government, yet talks of localism. He speaks the language of sacrifice, but grasps the truth uttered by the late Nicholas Ridley that 'politics is fundamentally about as large a house and garden as possible'. Politics is also a question of choices: the particular insight of Tony Blair has been to understand that they do not have to be made.

This is why the Prime Minister's great enterprises are programmed to fail. Take the so-called 'Project' - the hist oric merger with the Liberal Democrats that was to bring back together the two progressive strands in British politics and make the next hundred years the 'progressive century'. The Prime Minister uttered palpably sincere private assurances to Paddy Ashdown, Roy Jenkins and others that he would bring this about, then let them down in such an engaging way that he retained the goodwill of all concerned. Similar promises about entry to the euro were made to senior businessmen like Niall FitzGerald and Lord Simon; these, too, are in the process of being elegantly broken. At one stage welfare reform was on the cards, then dropped. Last year Tony Blair pledged an action plan for Africa and 'no tolerance for Mugabe and his henchmen'; it sounded good, but Zimbabwe thugs have flown in and out of Britain ever since, and Africa continues to go to hell, unimpeded by the British government. The Prime Minister seems undisturbed by the relation of words to their meaning, which suits the British people just fine. In this sense he is Britain's first postmodernist prime minister. He is about tone and style and the articulation of mood: form, not substance.

This is the brilliance of Tony Blair. Churlish detractors on the Labour Left hold up the example of Clem Attlee as a standing reproach to Tony Blair. After five and a half years, Attlee was clapped-out and finished, waiting only for the executioner's axe to fall. But he had filled his five years with heroic achievement - the National Health Service and the welfare state had been created. Nothing comparable has been done by this government, but that is not necessarily to the Prime Minister's discredit. He understands the British people, in all their self-satisfaction, hypocrisy and muddle. And they understand him. He is, quite simply, the most brilliant politician of our time.