By the time Parliament rises for the Christmas recess, the Prime Minister will have endured 18 consecutive days without a day off. This stretch embraces two uncomfortable working weekends, the first of them to the fly-blown Nigerian capital of Abuja for the Commonwealth conference, an event made more fractious than usual by the Zimbabwe squabble.
The Prime Minister left Abuja before the conference finished in order to return to a family funeral in Scotland. The hazards of this complicated journey included a 3.15-am arrival at Glasgow airport. Then it was back to London and the Downing Street reception for the all-conquering England rugby XV. This event was notable for the sharp contrast between Tony Blair’s prima-donna style of politics and rugby football, emphatically a team game. Downing Street suggestions that the Prime Minister should pose alone with Jonny Wilkinson were reportedly rebuffed by the RFU, which preferred that he should be photographed with all the players or none at all.
This weekend the strain gets worse as Tony Blair flies to Brussels for the Constitutional convention. The Prime Minister makes no secret of the fact that he hates these European marathons, yet there are signs that he will be obliged to endure no fewer than five days of grinding negotiation. No wonder he is so dreadfully tired and ill. I was recently studying television footage of Tony Blair signing the Good Friday agreement four years ago. He looked vital, dynamic, confident, had almost a full head of hair. It is shocking to contemplate the physical change that has come over the Prime Minister since. He has lost weight, and the skin hangs loosely about his neck. Rather mysteriously, for a man who spends most of his life indoors, he has what at first sight looks like a healthy tan. Closer examination detects an unhealthy yellow underneath the bronzed skin. Under camera lights this can produce a blotchy orange effect. The Prime Minister is physically wrecked by the pressure of his job, with the great bulk of the deterioration coming over the last 12 months.
This physical change demands explanation, for it is by no means an inevitable corollary of the premiership. Margaret Thatcher appeared to get younger as the years went by. John Major was under as much strain as Tony Blair, in some respects more. Whatever his other problems, he was in perfectly good physical condition after six and a half years in office. Not so Tony Blair.
Long-term occupants of No. 10 know how to delegate. Harold Wilson remarked that being Prime Minister was the least fatiguing job he had ever had. He reckoned that other fellows — government ministers — did the work. Wilson saw his job as keeping them up to the mark, and sacking them if they made a mess. Meanwhile Wilson could get on with doing what he liked best. Early on, this involved conspiracy; towards the end, gossiping with the Queen at Buckingham Palace over large beakers of brandy. Drink never did Harold Wilson much harm, nor Margaret Thatcher either. Tony Blair makes a virtue of abstinence. He has the unmistakable air of a man who could do with a good drink — or several, for that matter. It would help him loosen up.
One of Blair’s problems is that unlike Harold Wilson, or indeed John Major, he just does not believe in Cabinet government. He has no faith in his ministers, preferring to do their jobs for them. The wretched Geoff Hoon, defence secretary in name only, is a classic example. Evidence to the Hutton inquiry showed how the handling of the David Kelly affair was taken out of MoD hands and run from Downing Street, with Tony Blair chairing four meetings on Kelly within just two days, Hoon not even present. This kind of micro-management of government departments, with only perfunctory reference to the Secretary of State, is wholly characteristic of Blair’s Downing Street.
It is a batty system and the consequences are usually malign, though thankfully rarely as tragic as in the Kelly case. This week’s defence white paper, which opens the armed forces to swingeing attack from the Treasury, a longstanding ambition of Gordon Brown, is another disastrous though inevitable outcome of the Blair method of government.
Poor Geoff Hoon is held in general contempt throughout Whitehall as the hapless cipher of Downing Street. His position is weakened yet further by the fact that he will probably be forced to quit in the wake of next month’s Hutton report. He has been discredited in any case by the evidence given in open court. It is utterly negligent and wholly reprehensible that the Prime Minister has permitted the most far-ranging review of our national defences since the early 1990s to be left in the hands of such a weak and compromised defence secretary. It would have been so much more sensible to have delayed this noxious white paper, with its muddled proposal to dismantle gigantic swaths of our national defences, until Hoon’s personal position had been clarified after Hutton. As matters stand, the armed forces have lacked true Cabinet-level representation at a period when the future of national defence is under lethal Whitehall attack. The only recourse for top brass has been to go direct to Downing Street, which for the most part has been too preoccupied with constant fire-fighting on other fronts.
Doubtless the Blair family will be taking their customary winter break after Christmas. They like to go somewhere hot. Previous holidays have been taken in Egypt, the Maldives and the Caribbean, normally at the expense of some foreign government or tycoon. Grandfathered or not, no one will begrudge the Prime Minister his richly deserved break.
He has plenty to think about. His recent haggard appearance is not simply about the physical strain of his job. New Labour passed its climacteric last year, in the warm afterglow of the 2001 general election victory and successful prosecution of the Afghan war. Now it is in full-scale retreat, leaving Tony Blair adrift. He is suddenly detached not just from his own party but from the British people. When the tide of politics starts flowing against you, it is very hard to resist. This summer marks the Prime Minister’s tenth anniversary as Labour leader, an elegant opportunity for him to make an exit with as much grace as he can muster. There’s no more than a 50:50 chance that he will be in Downing Street by this time next Christmas.