MAESTRO OF SELF-DELUSION; Ignore Education Decline, Tax Rises, the Collapse of His European Dream, the Immigration Shambles and Mounting Social Problems ... Mr Blair Seems to Have Obtained a Divorce from Ordinary Cares and Real People While Occupying a World of His Own into Which Only the Almighty, Cherie, George Bush and a Handful of Apostles May Intrude

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Byline: MAX HASTINGS

CONSIDER a historical cameo of Blairism. In 1802, a European ambassador in St Petersburg described a mass baptism beside a hole in the ice of the frozen river Neva.

The bearded Russian patriarch conducting the ceremony dropped an infant whose body plunged into the depths, never to be seen again. 'Davoi drugoi,' intoned the archbishop impassively. 'Pass me another.' Omitting only the black beard, here was a performance immediately identifiable with our Prime Minister. Yesterday, Tony Blair was perhaps the only person in Labour's conference hall at Brighton apparently oblivious that he has presided over a national disaster, the war in Iraq, together with a host of lesser failures.

'We have been change-makers,' he proclaimed proudly, 'and that is what we must stay. It is a privilege to be Prime Minister of such a country.' From far, far away - from some mountain infinitely more remote than the stage on which he stood - he delivered the gospel to us common mortals.

Accept we must stick out his war. Ignore the decline of our education system, looming tax rises, the collapse of his European dream, the chaos of the immigration system, the budgetstarved Armed Forces, ever-mounting social problems, disappointed hopes and broken promises.

'Davoi drugoi,' demands Tony Blair.

Pass him another infant.

He is determined to go on and on, not merely because his wife has so much more shopping to do, but because he believes that triumphant vindication of his premiership lies just over the horizon.

LIKE some 15th century flat-earth navigator who sailed ever onward, confident that eventually he would reach the edge of the world, Blair thinks another year or two, or three, will secure his legacy.

The British people will perceive that our schools and hospitals are getting better.

Europe will start looking good again. Democracy will take root in Iraq. Tony Blair's status will be confirmed as one of the foremost statesmen of our time.

And, of course, he keeps for that much longer the delicious sweetmeats of power: outriders and helicopters, deferential aides and secret reports, obsequious colleagues and splendid residences.

'Why should he give up?' a Tory veteran, who himself came tantalisingly close to the premiership, said to me recently.

'He's got the best job there is.' For all Gordon Brown's relentless public pacing of the steps of 10 Downing Street, the Chancellor seems to have no clue how to evict the sitting tenant. That tenant yesterday served notice that no offer of compensation will induce him to pack his bags before he chooses.

A year ago, many of us asserted that the last phase of the Blair era had begun, that it was hard to see how the British people, or even the Labour Party, could profit from the Prime Minister's continuance in office much past the General Election.

Yet here we all are, approaching the end of 2005, and not a single minister or commentator in Brighton is willing to wager that Blair will be gone next year, never mind this one.

He addressed conference yesterday as a man convinced that only he can continue the visionary struggle to make Britain safe for Blairism.

'Nothing good comes easy,' he said. 'You just have to persevere.' He spoke with the fervour of a leader auditioning to fight his first General Election, rather than just past his last one.

It is extraordinary, is it not?

The polls show public respect for Blair once more waning after the brief upsurge following the London bombings, yet his self-belief remains impregnable. 'Government is not just a state of office, it is a state of mind,' he said dreamily.

We may suspect that President Bush's compact with God is at least partly cynical.

The Prime Minister's equivalent arrangement is not. He is sincerely convinced that he represents the forces of virtue, and that only heretics do not recognise this.

He spoke of how Labour missed a great opportunity to lead the resurrection of Britain in the 1980s because the party was not ready for change, of how the middle ground of British politics was lost to the Tories: 'Today, we've got it back, and we'll never yield it to them again.' For 'we', read 'I'.

In one sense, he is right. Blair is a consummate politician, probably the most formidable of modern times. Margaret Thatcher was an infinitely more important prime minister, whose achievement in changing Britain and restoring its prosperity dwarfs anything Blair has done.

But she lacked Blair's skill in managing power. She was removed from office by her own party in 1990, having lost the support of her ministers as well as much of the electorate.

In recent years, we have heard so much about Labour's successful management of Britain's economy that it is easy to forget that Blair and Brown owe almost everything to what Thatcher did 20 years ago.

At the end of the 1970s, this country seemed doomed to perpetual decline.

Thatcher's reforms laid the foundations for a new world, of riches almost unimaginable in those days.

Since 1997, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have been able to spend staggering sums of money on our public services, and on doing the Good Works so dear to their hearts, only thanks to the forces of enterprise mobilised by the Iron Lady.

One of the chief reasons it has been so hard for the Conservative Party to make headway against Labour since 1997 is that the Government has been able to spend a huge amount of taxpayers' money, without voters noticing too much damage to their pockets.

More than that, for all their public homage to enterprise, they have imposed upon British business a deadweight of bureaucracy, taxation and employee rights that exposes their woeful ignorance of the global competitiveness about which Blair said so much yesterday.

The moment is obviously close when Labour's largesse starts to hurt people, and to be seen to hurt.

It has not come yet. Until it does, Tony Blair can continue to defy gravity. He spoke yesterday as leader not of the Labour Party, but of the Not-The-Tory-Party (NTTP).

For a decade now, Blair's NTTP has been the most formidable force in British politics. It convoyed a host of Labour MPs to the joys of office, but many still bitterly resent it.

In Blair's tribute to Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam on Sunday, he observed fervently: 'We must never lose what they stood for.' Yet every delegate at Brighton knew that Blair's electoral success has been founded not upon 'losing' what Cook's and Mowlam's Old Labour stood for, but upon digging a grave and burying it. Many hated him for this, while recognising that they needed his extraordinary gifts as a vote-winner.

Now, that game is over. Blair has acknowledged that he will fight no more General Elections. His political usefulness is thus at an end. Labour no longer has to pretend to like him, and yesterday it did not really pretend to do so.

Applause from the floor seemed mechanical. Most of his audience, and especially the trade unionists, are thinking only of how, and how soon, they can supplant him without a bloodletting.

What does Blair himself think, as he hears the endless talk of 'Brown, Brown, Brown', of the future not the past? If we were privy to the Prime Minister's thoughts, we might be surprised how small a part in them the Chancellor plays.

But then the extraordinary thing about Blair is that he seems to have obtained a divorce from ordinary cares, real people. He holds the keys of office, while occupying a world of his own, into which only the Almighty, Cherie, George Bush and a handful of apostles are permitted to intrude.

It was striking that he did not dare to mention the American President by name in his speech.

Yet he offered his audience the same litany of nonsense about the war that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld spout.

HE IDENTIFIED events on the battlefield with the 'worldwide struggle against terrorism, which is at its fiercest in Iraq', as if Osama bin Laden was pulling the strings of the power struggle between Sunni and Shia, rather than merely relishing the spectacle.

Yet any prime minister who has so far defied every precedent of politics by retaining office after presiding over disaster and deceit on the scale of Iraq might be forgiven for assuming that wingless flight is easy.

Any man who could yesterday pay homage to Ken Livingstone as 'a great London mayor' when five years ago he strove might and main to destroy him is beyond selfknowledge or embarrassment.

It is Blair's good fortune to be Prime Minister in the age of the mindless celebrity culture, when the British have abandoned serious debate on the fate of their nation - whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen.

Voters have opinions of a kind, about the war, education, health, family life and crime on the streets.

But they seem to have forsworn passion or serious thinking about big issues.

They are content to sail through life untroubled unless some serious misfortune befalls them, such as the dishwasher breaking down, or the video recorder failing to tape the football on TV.

There was probably more genuine anger towards Blair among Labour's delegates in Brighton yesterday than among the public who think all politicians are pretty much alike, and that the Tories would be no better than this lot.

Here is Blair's most conspicuous achievement. He presides over a stupefied society, more intent upon Apple's new iPod than upon the scandalous failure of our school system.

Not one delegate dared to boo when he yesterday boasted the progress of educational reform.

God help us, perhaps he himself believed the last GCSE results.

Blair said much yesterday about hard choices. Yet these are what he has always flinched from - about commercial competitiveness, pensions, health, schools and energy policy. For more than eight years, he has merely massaged the British people with fur mittens.

If there is any justice about the way today's history is written, the Blair Legacy will be perceived as a confidence trick. There never was a Third Way; only a moment of time at which political and economic circumstances let a government get away with talking very big and delivering very little.

Oh yes, and launching Britain into a war whose consequences are likely to be with us for decades.

Blair's performance yesterday was not one of his best. Sweating profusely, at times he looked less like a third-term prime minister than an auctioneer talking up a newly-renovated house suspected of subsidence.

One half- expected him to ask: 'And what am I bid for this great country?', after extolling the virtues of Britain, his Britain, in such feverishly extravagant terms.

Yet he left no doubt that he was inviting support for his own continuance in power, rather than preparing to abandon it. Gordon Brown's grin, as he joined the applause, was that of a Spartan with a fox gnawing at his vitals.

Yesterday's message is that anyone who wants Tony Blair's job in a hurry will have to fight him for it. The big question for British politics in the year ahead is whether the Labour Party is willing to do this.

Meanwhile, 'davoi drugoi'.