Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Has a Slightly Mad Obsession with the Press. He Should Be More Worried about Mr Brown

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Has a Slightly Mad Obsession with the Press. He Should Be More Worried about Mr Brown

Article excerpt


There were two anniversaries at Westminster last week. The Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations were launched with her speech to Parliament in Westminster Hall. It was a splendid and joyful occasion, marked by, among other things, a nicely judged oration from the Lord Chancellor. The event radiated an ease and confidence which the monarchy seemed to have lost a decade ago. There was harmony everywhere, except among Conservative MPs, who could not make up their mind whether or not to wear morning dress. The modernisers wore lounge suits but a diehard faction, led by Nicholas Soames, did not. The previous day the parliamentary party had been paged with the information that while `dress is optional, the leader of the opposition will be wearing morning dress'. This sowed extra confusion.

Equally confused was this week's other anniversary: Tony Blair acceded to power five years ago this week. This event was commemorated only by a scatter of press interviews and an undignified squabble about the government's latest idea on combating crime, the 52nd such initiative since David Blunkett became Home Secretary less than a year ago.

But the start of Tony Blair's sixth year in office is an important moment. There have been ten prime ministers during Her Majesty's 50-year reign. Tony Blair has now served her longer than most of them. It would be absurd not to acknowledge the scale of that achievement. None of the Queen's prime ministers has enjoyed anything like such a sustained period of public popularity as Tony Blair. None of her chancellors has presided over such a long and sustained period of prosperity.

Looked at from within the perspective of Labour party history, the achievement is yet more spectacular. Five years after the great election of 1929, Ramsay MacDonald was still prime minister but of a Tory-dominated national administration: the Labour party was shattered. Five years after 1945 the Attlee government was done for and on the way out. After five years of Harold Wilson, Labour was eaten up by fratricide. With Tony Blair, it is steady as she goes. He has turned Labour into the natural party of government, and redrawn the British political landscape.

But he remains an enigma. It is impossible to say what he believes in or, for that matter, exactly what he is for. By the end of five years, Attlee was politically exhausted but he could look back at five years of heroic achievement: the creation of the postwar British state. Tony Blair can point to half-- hearted constitutional tinkering, Gordon Brown's restructuring of the tax and benefit systems, and David Blunkett's tilting of the balance in civil liberties away from the individual and towards the state.

He remains absorbed by process and not substance. You can see this in New Labour's slightly mad obsession with the press. Ever since becoming party leader eight years ago, Tony Blair has enjoyed fair-- minded coverage, bordering in places on the sycophantic. To grasp that one only has to contemplate the vicious, twisted treatment dealt out to John Major or Neil Kinnock and compare that with the press Tony Blair gets today. Yet the government carries on believing, in the face of all the evidence, that it is the victim of some demonic conspiracy. Downing Street confuses democratic debate with hostile attack. It regards legitimate questions as sinister and, quite disgracefully, is prepared to lie, deceive and manipulate rather than tell the truth. …

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