A WONDERFUL YEAR, TONY, BUT WORSE IS NOW TO COME; I Have Been Observing Prime Ministers for over Half-a-Century and Have Seen What Office Does to Them . . . and with Blair I Have Seldom Seen a Friend Age So Fast

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Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

TONY BLAIR has had a good first year. To find an incoming Prime Minister who did better in his first 12 months you would have to go back to Harold Macmillan in 1957.

Blair critics sneeringly refer to him as 'Supertone'. That is an error.

The great cartoonist Vicky tried to laugh Macmillan off the stage by branding him 'Supermac'. Later, Macmillan used to drawl to us at the Beefsteak Club: 'Best thing that ever happened to me', while Vicky ruefully admitted: 'My worst mistake.' Blair may be Supertone but the year has taken its toll. I have seldom seen a friend age so fast. He looks tired and careworn, as though the burdens of the world rest on his shoulders, as indeed to some degree they do. Since entering No 10, he has ceased to be a young man and become definitely middle-aged.

But he still smiles. And his smile is genuine.

Blair is a happy man, with a wonderful family and a job he loves and knows he is good at. He has said to me more than once in the past year: 'I can't believe it's all real.' I will be frank. I like and admire Blair, and my regard and admiration has increased during past year. I have been observing Prime Ministers for nearly half a century and have seen what office does to them. When Blair took over No 10, I said: 'Promise me you will say a prayer each day not to be corrupted by power,' and he said he would.

I believe he has kept that promise and power has not corrupted him. He is still spontaneous and genuine. He lacks arrogance - so far.

Blair retains his natural good manners, and anyone who does him a service is sure to get a hand-written letter of thanks, however busy he is. He jokes.

He has fun. Not least, he listens he has always been a good listener, and he retains this valuable asset.

It is valuable because, though Blair entered Downing Street very ignorant in some ways, especially in foreign affairs, he has learned a lot, fast. He is a keen, quick student, just like Margaret Thatcher before him.

A year ago there were some areas where I knew more than he did. Now I can hardly think of one. He is rapidly acquiring a mastery of detail over the whole scope of government.

So much for Blair the man.

Let us look at his record. First the good news. Where Blair has been personally in charge, the results have been outstanding.

What determines the success or failure of governments is not so much policies as events, especially unexpected ones.

The disaster in Blair's first year was the death of Princess Diana, and the appropriate response to it. A chasm threatened to open up between the people and the Establishment.

Blair bridged that chasm. He handled this potential crisis with skill and so averted it.

He applied the same sure touch to foreign affairs. His relations with Bill Clinton are excellent and my political and military friends on both sides of the Atlantic unite in saying that the 'special relationship' has never worked better. The results are perceptible in every field, from Ireland to Bosnia and the Middle East, and in many secret matters, too.

Some people think Blair went too far in being nice to Clinton.

But as Blair said to me: 'I really like him. He has been straight and decent with me and that's what I go by.' There speaks a sensible man of state.

Blair gets on with our European partners better than any Prime Minister since Winston Churchill. He has made friends with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his likely successor in September, Gerhard Schroeder.

That is an achievement.

BLAIR had a huge success in Paris with his speech in French to the parliament. It is a curious fact that, just as the world went for Thatcherism in the Eighties, so it is now going for what the French like to call le Blairisme. It is he, not Clinton, who is the world's most imitated politician.

This popularity, which essentially springs from his innate friendliness, has helped Blair in negotiations. …