Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Variety of Religious Experience

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Variety of Religious Experience

Article excerpt

One reason why the Blair government is still on honeymoon with the electorate is the impression it gives of constant, benign activity. There is an explanation for this. In all previous governments, ministers tended to regard their dealings with the media as a distraction from their serious tasks. Journalists were useful as a source of lunch or gossip, perhaps over a whisky at the end of a hard day's work. But to allow dealings with journalists to occupy prime working hours would generally have been considered a self-indulgence, the equivalent of a Victorian lady reading a novel before lunch.

Under Mr Blair, however, priorities have been inverted. Many of his ministers seem to regard paperwork or departmental meetings as an irritating distraction from their real duty: to ensure a good press. That is why there have been so many difficulties between ministers and their civil service press officers since 1 May; as soon as the minister for string has a good write-up, the minister for candle-ends is consumed with jealousy and berates his press office for letting him down. It also explains the contrast between superb presentation - no democratic government has ever been so adept at handling the media - and the continuing absence of policy detail in several crucial areas. Nor is it solely detail which is absent; whenever this government is asked about its strategy, it merely repeats its slogans.

But this government is not about policy detail or about strategy; its social programme is a magpie's nest of improvisation and theft. For the Blair government, the medium is the message, and the medium is Mr Blair himself. Mr Blair not only dominates his government to a greater extent than any previous PM did, including Mrs Thatcher; he is its raison d'etre: his personality is its philosophy.

There are parallels with Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1983. If she had been assassinated in her first term, none of her disciples would have been in a position to take over, and Thatcherism would have suffered a grievous check to its momentum. But her successor -- probably Willie Whitelaw or Francis Pym - would have had to reckon with the Thatcherite legacy; Joseph, Lawson, Tebbit et al. would have ensured that he could not manage the party on any other basis. If Mr Blair were to disappear tomorrow, what legacy would he leave? Labour would still be in power, but what about Blairism, especially if the party chose Gordon Brown as its leader, as it probably would, with all faults? PostBlair, Blairism would not exactly be the scent on a pocket handkerchief; more, perhaps, the hot air inside a miniature dome.

But Mr Blair is not going to disappear; in order to understand his government, we have to understand him. That is not easy. The standard interpretation is still John Rentoul's. Mr Rentoul, a left-wing journalist, was given considerable access to Mr Blair for two years, and produced a useful biography. He said that after those two years, he still did not know what, if anything, Tony Blair believed. The PM's personality is equally inscrutable. Mr Blair is a warm and humorous man, seemingly at ease with himself; no one could accuse him of being mean-spirited. Yet he reacts very badly to criticism. Under questioning in the Commons, he quickly becomes tetchy and petulant; all the attractive aspects of his personality seem to drop away, like so many masks. He cannot bear even the mildest dissension from those he regards as allies; his attitude to the Guardian makes Paul Johnson sound like a director of the Scott Trust. Some sympathetic journalists recently asked him about the Murdoch press. …

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