Why I Admire the PM I Once Despised; A Leading Conservative Commentator Explains Why, with Tony Blair under Attack, He Has Changed His Mind about the Labour Leader

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TONY Blair has recently resembled nobody more than Mr Incredible, the ageing superhero, who seems to have lost his touch. His flagship antiterrorism Bill has been eviscerated in the Lords, his election campaign has been written off before it has started, and Michael Howard is wheeling out NHS patients and angry mothers to blame their misfortunes on the Prime Minister. Many in his own party are clamouring for Mr Incredible to retire into private life.

But last night, Mr Blair once again wrong-footed the doomsayers - salvaging a passage through the Commons for his anti-terror Bill against all the odds.

This Mr Incredible is not finished yet.

The more embattled Tony Blair is, the more I warm to him. For years, while he used to be everybody's favourite, small "c" conservatives like me couldn't stand the man: he seemed to despise everything we held dear. Now that, after eight years of making enemies, he is under attack from all sides, I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that Blair has matured into the best Prime Minister we have got. As yesterday's exchanges in the Commons demonstrate, it is Blair rather than Howard who is in tune with public opinion on terror.

I am not blind to the damage that has been inflicted on the economy, on our institutions, or on our traditions over the past eight years: all on Blair's watch. But he is a big enough man to shoulder his part of the blame for the public's loss of trust in politics and politicians.

He has set up more inquiries into his own Government's conduct than any other prime minister; he abides by them, and expects ministers to do likewise.

It is no longer possible for me to accept the Tory "ultra" argument that Blair is bent on the destruction of all that makes Britain unique and precious.

Far from being the implacable foe of "the forces of conservatism", he has merely skirmished with them.

LABOUR activists and Tory ultras believed this rhetoric, but all we have seen is a phoney class war. If this were the apocalyptic conf lict which exercises the fevered imagination of the ultras, then why is Michael Howard so reluctant to reverse more than a handful of the hundreds of measures enacted by this Government?

Take the House of Lords, which is usually cited as the prime example of Blair's constitutional vandalism. Has the effect of reducing (but not abolishing) the hereditary peers been to weaken the second chamber? No. This very week the Lords has defeated the Government on its flagship Prevention of Terrorism Bill several times - only the latest in a series of reverses.

It is the same story with foxhunting. The ultras refused to contemplate the "middle way" of a more regulated sport, which might have allowed foxwiseto continue. That is what happened in Scotland.

Blair offered to square his own hardliners. Once the ultras tried to turn an issue of rural pest control into a great constitutional issue, there was no stopping Labour's class warriors. It was the diehards, not Blair, who sealed the fate of hunting.

A popular Labour prime minister who really hated conservative Britain would by now have pillaged the private schools, Oxbridge, the professions, the military, the mandarins, the landed gentry, the City and the monarchy with an ardour that would make Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries look like a National Trust restoration project. …


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