You Got What You Deserve
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
It is exactly one year since Tony Blair stood on a platform on the south bank of the River Thames and mumbled about a new dawn. Most of the writers in the following pages were asked to make instant judgements at the moment of the landslide. These are now revisited, starting with the New Statesman's political editor.
The people's government is one year old and its people are still cheering. The coalition that Tony Blair spectacularly created at the election is still intact. The Sun is on side and so (whatever the government might think) is the Guardian. The polls continue to record unprecedented leads. Abroad, political leaders of the centre left and, indeed, the centre right, look on with bewildered admiration. How does he do it, they ask.
They are quite right to ask about "his" achievements rather than "its". Over the past year Blair has established himself as the most powerful prime minister since Churchill's wartime premiership. Like Churchill in the 1940s, he is a prime minister who, for the time being, transcends the normal considerations of party politics, a position epitomised by a response he gave to a Labour backbencher last summer about a controversial policy. "I've done it," Blair replied, "because it was the right thing to do."
Prime ministers are usually in no position to give such a bald reply. The right thing to do is often the last thing on their minds. Balancing their parties, keeping powerful pressure groups on side, winning votes in the Commons are more usual considerations in the formulation of policies. For the time being, at least, none of these factors needs to worry Blair.
Arguably in the mid-1980s Margaret Thatcher had a similar dominance over her government, but thai was after winning two elections and when she was on her way to winning a third. Much of her premiership was more typical. In the early years she had to balance "wets" against "dries" and later had to accept economic policies she largely opposed, culminating in Britain's entry into the ERM. She did not take sterling into the ERM because she considered it to be "the right thing to do".
Blair is above party because he chooses to be so. He is not a tribal politician. It is possible that the century for radicals he envisages will come about through new Labour alone, but he is relaxed about the Liberal Democrats having a role as well as centre-left Tories. Note how Tory names are being brought into the process of government. Chris Patten's appointment to review policing in Northern Ireland is the latest. Michael Heseltine's involvement with the Millennium Dome inevitably blunts the attack of the Tories in an area where the government is vulnerable. John Gummer was invited to attend the Earth Summit. Pro-European Tories are being wooed (although the early flirtations made by the government were clumsy). A year after the election, the official opposition looks more marginal than ever.
Blair's attitude to party and politics is the essence of his power. Acres of print are spent assessing his attempts to centralise control in Downing Street. But all prime ministers attempt to assert their authority in such a way. Harold Wilson's "kitchen cabinet" obsessed the media and other politicians in a similar way. Blair's authority does not derive from the way he seeks to use Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, but is based on electoral and political success which has freed him from traditional constraints.
It is no surprise that Blair's biggest triumph, with an important supporting role from Mo Mowlam, was away from the arena of domestic partisan politics, in one requiring the skills of a quasi-presidential figure above the fray. The Northern Ireland peace agreement was a genuine coup for Blair, not a cosmetic one. It involved risk-taking, building up the trust of key players and an immersion in the details and nuances of Northern Ireland politics. Even if at a later stage, the deal proves unworkable, it will have breathed new life into the ceasefires. …