Magazine article The Spectator

Why Tony Blair Wears That Look of Virtuous but Irritable Bafflement

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Tony Blair Wears That Look of Virtuous but Irritable Bafflement

Article excerpt

The Prime Minister has long felt an unshakeable conviction that he brings to bear a unique insight into human affairs.

There are great schemes to transform society and make a better world which he would undoubtedly accomplish if only circumstances allowed. Sadly they do not. A number of factors -- dim-witted ministerial colleagues, unco-operative Labour MPs, an incompetent Civil Service, the mulishness of Gordon Brown and a cynical press and broadcasting media are probably the five which loom largest in the Prime Minister's mind -- have prevented him from carrying them out. Hence the look of virtuous though irritable bafflement that has gradually become Tony Blair's most characteristic public expression.

The Prime Minister combines victim status with an irrational cheerfulness. This profoundly dotty air of martyrdom accounts for the overwhelming sense of unreality that has begun to emerge from Downing Street as Tony Blair embarks on his final years, or just as likely months, in office.

Nobody really cares any more. Three months have now elapsed since the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a Cabinet post, became vacant. In the normal course of events it would be a reasonably pressing matter to find a replacement. But Downing Street aides say that Tony Blair 'can't be bothered' to carry out the necessary reshuffle, as if that were an explanation. The casualness was on display when Mr Blair didn't bother to turn up and vote on his Religious Hatred Bill two weeks ago.

There was no real remorse afterwards. It was just one of those things.

As he reaches the end of a long premiership, Tony Blair has come to feel an extreme sense of detachment. He conducts himself less like the powerful centre of a dynamic government than a disinterested though still curious observer. Last week saw two important political moments -- a negotiated settlement between the government and at least some of the Labour rebels over education reform, and the public emergence of a dramatic new configuration in the balance of power between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Both of the developments are unexpected and, on the face of things, unaccountable. Both are manifestations of the curious psychology now at work inside Downing Street.

The agreement between rebel MPs and Downing Street is the most difficult to explain. In the foreword to last autumn's White Paper, Tony Blair wrote that he proposed a 'radical' extension to the freedoms enjoyed by schools. He asserted that Britain was at a 'historic turning point'.

Crucial to this transformation, so the Prime Minister maintained, was creating independence for schools. This meant taking them out of bureaucratic control. 'To underpin this change, ' he insisted, 'the local authority must move from being a provider of education to being its local commissioner and the champion of parent choice.' This was raising the stakes very high indeed.

On Monday the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, seemed to indicate that the government had given way on this absolutely central point. This concession was enough to cause the leaders of the Labour rebels to call it a day. Mystifyingly, Tony Blair continued to maintain that his laudable and ambitious programme of reform was still on course. …

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