19 JANUARY 2002, Page 12

Just who does the smiling, doe-eyed Tony Blair think he

is? The Princess of Wales, that's who. Simon Heifer says that the Prime Minister is too busy playing to the international gallery to run the countiy

A PRIME MINISTER will always have his or her critics. Usually, though, a good spin doctor can marginalise them and persuade the rest of us to concentrate on the 'achievements'. That, for more than four years, was how things played with Tony Blair. However, even in the best regulated and most successful lives something always seems to go wrong. In Mr Blair's case it has been the imposition upon his always rather susceptible character of one massive vanity: that he has a personal and dedicated mission to save the world. This strange obsession has diverted him from the important business of running our country. It has made him into a figure of fun. However, precisely because of the dereliction of prime-ministerial duty that has resulted from Mr Blair's diplomatic ambulance-chasing, it is actually not funny at all.

In one respect it is the old problem of a politician believing his own publicity. The Prime Minister probably really does think he has solved the Northern Ireland problem and made the vital contribution to the defeat of the Taleban. It is a small step from there to believing that he can bring peace to the Middle East, resolve the dispute over Kashmir, reconcile Hutus to Tutsis and, for all we know, sow the seeds of eternal love between Spurs and Arsenal. Mr Blair seems not remotely to appreciate that his new incarnation — a sort of Terry Waite without the cassock but with a mandate from the British electorate — has been such a catastrophic exercise in image management. Not only is he not up to it; his country is not up to it. It is not so much punching above his weight as lining up for the mother of all beatings. So why does he do it?

Perhaps it is the old story of a powerful man being surrounded by oilers and greasers who will not tell him the truth. So, when he announces yet another mercy dash to bring sweetness and light to some hellhole, they all tell him what a superb, statesmanlike idea it is. They do not bother to mention that the transport system of this country is shot to pieces, the NHS is on its knees, crime is out of control, or that our

schools are a production line of mutinous functional illiterates. Nor do they point out that the ministers presiding over this are nearly all, in varying degrees, dishonest or incompetent. Or perhaps there is another, more alarming, cause. It all started to become clear as one watched the footage of the Blairs in India. There he was, in his fancy dress, smiling in that doe-eyed way that suggests, and invites, universal beneficence. Yet he was a spectator, not a participant. On a mission where he was fundamentally useless, he was there to

show us the bleeding of his heart, his wish to empathise, to feel the pain of those around him, to inspire by the force of his sheer personality, and to bring joy and happiness by his very presence. In short, he had become the Princess of Wales.

One could not help but be reminded of her in that memorable scene in Sir Magdi Yacoub's operating theatre. She, too, put on the traditional costume. She, too, felt their pain. She, too, tried to inspire hope and happiness by her visit to those who suffered. However, she, too, was nothing more than the proverbial spare part, a distraction, a mere observer, while somebody else with the appropriate knowledge and quali fications got on with the real business of making a difference.

Given his penchant for good public relations, Mr Blair could be forgiven for trying to ape one of the most successful public relations phenomena of our times. She was the people's princess; he is the people's prime minister. Maybe he invented (or had invented for him) the term specifically because he or his advisers felt he was equipped directly to emulate it. It is all too easy to imagine him, after a setback or public humiliation, protesting in a martyred fashion to Mr Martin Bashir that he just wants to be 'king of people's hearts'. We cannot doubt, despite all the repulsive thespianism involved, that our Prime Minister was genuinely moved and distressed when he made that famous speech to camera outside the church on the morning after the fatal Paris crash. Equally, though, we should not be too surprised if he, or one of his flunkeys, quickly identified that there would now be a vacuum in the affections of the British people, and who might have the Diana-like resources of style, compassion and goodwill to fill it?

Of course, we must not go overboard here. The Princess, whatever one thought of her, had qualities Mr Blair can never dream of possessing that endeared her to the British public and then to the world. She was a figure of international glamour. She had her own style that others venerated and sought to imitate. She was the wronged woman and a celebrated victim of adultery. She was a leading figure in the best soap opera ever devised, and the combination of all of these things drew people to her and to the idea of her like the proverbial magnet.

Despite not having quite the same pulling power, Mr Blair must have seen the point. Like her, he had youth on his side: the youngest prime minister since Rosebery 100 years earlier. He is always well groomed and well dressed. In 1997, when the vacancy occurred in the hearts of the British people, he had just won his first massive landslide. Like her, he is forwardlooking, impatient of stuffy tradition, but attracted to the status of his own role and the doors it opened for him. Like her, having been elevated relatively early to a conspicuous public position, he had a choice: to play it straight or to play to the gallery. Like her, he has chosen the second option.

Charisma is the key to this. This religiose talent allows Blair to project his character without self-consciousness, as Diana learned to do, It goes hand in hand with the acceptance of adulation. That, in turn, becomes a need for adulation, which she certainly seemed to acquire as a defence mechanism against the humiliation of the end of her marriage. He has it too, though in his case he needs it in order to sustain his amour-propre as a statesman. He has revelled in the regard and admiration he has had from America since 11 September much as she revelled in the same feelings shown towards her by the British public. Like the late Princess, he needs public opinion to validate him. He likes the walkabout, the controlled situation where he can be among the public but not trapped by them; a tactic hitherto used mainly by royalty. He slipped into that mode almost instinctively, just weeks after the Princess's death, when he accompanied the Queen on her golden wedding walkabout in Whitehall. Indeed, he slipped into it so well that he effectively hijacked it and sidelined the monarch.

The adulation comes not just with charisma. It comes as a result of the charismatic having what passes for the common touch. The Princess seems genuinely to have had this. Mr Blair would like to be thought to have it genuinely too (the way some of his colleagues talk about 'ordinary people' — not a phrase the Princess would ever have used — does, though, raise the odd doubt). However, anyone who remembers his being assailed by members of the public in the last election campaign will have seen how quickly he can be wrong-footed by his supposedly adoring public when they are allowed to get to him in an uncontrolled situation. The Princess fared better in such contexts, not purely because she lacked the handicap of being a politician, but because she was adept at being sincere; perhaps because much of the time she was sincere, Mr Blair can turn on the sincerity, but it is less convincing. It was easy to forget she was an actress; it is always at the forefront of one's perceptions of him that he is an actor. She seemed quite naturally to cross the barrier between royalty and the rest of us; he tries to do it with artificial gestures like taking off his jacket to appear matey at every opportunity, though he stops short of rolling up his sleeves.

His appeal, like hers, also consists to some extent in a readiness to break with accepted practice. She would take her young children out to fashionable restaurants for lunch, being pictured in designer casual wear and showing how in tune she was with the modern generation. Mr Blair, his baby not yet at the stage when it would appreciate San Lorenzo, makes a similar statement by appearing on the steps of No. 10 in a bomber jacket holding his son. Like her, he knows how to create and milk a good photo-opportunity. Like her, he is always dressed for the part. Both of them shared an urgent need to be relevant to impressionable people, since relevance is such a source of popularity and therefore power.

She had her dodgy friends, of course, the Fayeds principal among them. He has a whole list of therm but they — whether Mandelson or the Hindujas — add a racy, exciting element to him, in much the same way that Dodi and the Phoney Pharaoh did to her. Yet, for all such black sheep, both of them share an image of sainthood. The Princess had no need to die to acquire hers: she was on visiting terms with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, crusaded for victims of Aids, and loved the homeless. Mr Blair (for all his warrior-like rhetoric since 11 September) still predominantly associates himself with pacific, beneficent acts and people. His gospel, like hers, is that of Inclusiveness'. Like St Francis of Assisi, he has asked the Lord to make him an instrument of His peace. Lacking the Princess's radiance, Mr Blair instead disseminates his message of love by adopting the righteous tone and manner that have led to his being satirised each fortnight in Private Eye as the Revd A.R.P. Blair, vicar of St Albion's. She stuck to landmines; he, being a politician, seeks to reconcile parties who harbour ageold hatreds.

Long before he discovered the forces of conservatism as a philosophical hate-figure, she had been in a life-and-death battle with them. Her death, we are told, made him realise how the monarchy had to be modernised if it was to be saved. However, the great lesson of her life for him — and he appears to have taken it very much to heart — is that old establishments, especially those that survive on deference of any sort, can be brought to their knees if you are determined and ruthless enough. In the end, too, this country was not enough. She went global; now he has. Britain, of which she was supposed one day to be Queen, was not a big enough canvas for her in her craving for attention, respect, regard and admiration. Britain, of which he is supposed to be Prime Minister, appears to be failing him likewise, There was talk of her trying to persuade John Major to give her the role of roving ambassador to the world. Mr Blair has assumed this position himself.

Eventually, years of behaving in this rarefied way brings one to the verge of delusion. The Princess reached the stage where she thought she could do more or less what she liked, and could get away with it. There is no other rational explanation for the Bashir interview. Mr Blair is now at this stage, the only difference being that the Princess was more or less correct in her judgment. She had the media more or less unequivocally on her side; he, unfortunately, does not. It is one thing to try to be the Princess of Wales, but it is another to succeed. Because he is a scurvy politician and not an international sex object, he is doomed to fail.

It is probably too late for him to stop on this course now, too late, even, for the masterful Alastair Campbell to tell him to get a grip on himself. Just as she seemed to be fleeing from reality by travelling nearly non-stop in her last months, so too is Blair. Out of sheer humanity, we must hope he is spared his heroine's fate. Luckily, the drivers in the Government Car Service are a famously sober lot.