The Real Tony Blair: Nothing Now Counts for the PM except His Own Self-Belief. to Accuse Critics of Tackling the Man, Not the Ball, Misses the Point. This Man Doesn't Pass the Ball

Article excerpt

  Presume not that I am the thing I was,
  For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
  That I have turned away my former self;
  So will I those that kept me company.
  Henry V (Henry IV Part Two, Act V, Scene 5)

If seven days is a long time in politics, seven years is positively an eternity. And the distance that Tony Blair has travelled in that time (not just back and forth across the Atlantic) remains a striking feature of any current assessment. True, we were told at the outset that having won as new Labour, he would govern as new Labour; but how have we got to the situation where the election of a socialist government in Spain and the (slim?) possibility of a Democratic victory in America can cause our own Prime Minister such embarrassment? After all, a Labour prime minister traditionally supports the Democratic candidate: but then, a Labour prime minister traditionally supports the Labour Party.

In 1997, Blair could count among his friends and admirers the likes of Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroder, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. These days it is George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi. For New Blair, France, Germany and even the United Nations are the Paula Radcliffes of international politics: when the heat was really on, they failed to go the extra mile.

What frightens me is that, having gone away for the summer and had a chance to reflect on the past year, the Prime Minister has returned more brazenly sure of himself, more self-deluded than ever. It is no surprise that the man behind the FCUK advertising campaign was appointed to spearhead Labour's 2001 publicity drive: Blair himself has entered the "FCUK YOU" phase of his premiership.

It's the closeness to Berlusconi that is most extraordinary, and revealing. Granted, the two meet often on business: one of their encounters was in March, when they hatched a plan to lift the EU arms embargo on Libya so that our two countries could be the first to reward Muammar Gaddafi for giving up his nuclear weapons--by selling him conventional ones. Yet this was different: this was for pleasure. I have a picture in my mind of Tony Blair sitting beside a pool surrounded by olive groves, watching Berlusconi's yacht bobbing on the Mediterranean and wondering how to cut incapacity benefit.

This government has always been driven by Blair's personal obsessions--by the passion of whatever it is that happens to seize him at any given moment. Those who complain that critics go for the man and not the ball miss the point: this is a man who doesn't pass the ball. Time and again, he reduces the whole of government to his own persona. Conference-goers will remember his "irreducible core" speech of 2000. "Labour, c'est moi," was the inescapable message. This reached its apotheosis during the Hutton inquiry, when Blair said that the BBC allegations against him "went, in a sense, to the credibility, I felt, of the country". To question his integrity is to question that of Britain itself.

Do we really have to put up with such patent nonsense? There is nothing wrong with strong vision and firm leadership; what is worrying is where that vision is based not on fact and objective judgement, but on belief alone. "I may be wrong about this," Blair told Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, "but it's what I believe." He may tell you that black is white, but, for him at least, that can never be a lie because at the time he says it he honestly, sincerely believes that black is white. What we are witnessing is the advent of a faith-based premiership, one which leaves the Prime Minister open to the accusation that his policies may be the product of "an unchecked and unbalanced mind ... [that] ... came to confuse the notion of knowing your own mind with refusing to listen to anyone else". He may recognise the words: they are his own description of Margaret Thatcher.

For a recent show at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, I was encouraged to explore the parallels between the leaders in his plays and those of our own time. …