3 MAY 1997, Page 8


Why Mr Blair will lose (respect and affection, that is)


When Faustus sold his soul to the Devil he received, in exchange, earthly power. By the time many of you read this, Tony Blair will probably have received earthly power too. But the Devil, who dealt fair with Faustus, has cheated Mr Blair. Had he but known it, the Labour leader was due to get power this spring anyway. It was not necessary to sell his party's soul to secure a prize which was already in his stars; and now the hope of eternal life which in politics we may translate as the likelihood of winning more elections than one — may have slipped away.

When the scale of Tony Blair's likely conquest is known, then will dawn an understanding of just how ill-judged has been the campaign which preceded this vic- tory but did not secure it; and which may have forfeited victory next time. Seldom has a new government come to power with less hold on the trust and affections of its own party, or of those who help form and communicate opinion in Britain. This great inheritance of love and trust has been squandered in what looked like a panic- stricken scrabble for votes, a panic few pro- fessional pollsters could understand.

For Labour was always going to win. Labour was going to win regardless of what was said or done by any of the three main parties during their campaigns. Labour was going to win because Britain was fed up with the Tories, and satisfied that the alter- native was no longer Marxism.

It was not necessary for Mr Blair to promise what cannot now be delivered. It was not necessary to swear that things which must come would not come; not nec- essary for him to tell huge untruths about his rival; not necessary to invite hubris by boasting, like some acne-ravaged lower- sixth-former, about his superior leadership qualities; not necessary, in six short weeks, to squander the immense stock of respect and goodwill he had accumulated amongst many British journalists and broadcasters. It was not necessary to lose what love remained for him among his own party; not necessary to excite among millions of vot- ers that doubting faith which can curdle overnight into mistrust. Mr Blair has traded his reputation for a fig.

I wonder whether the clever young men around the likely new prime minister who will already be assuring each other, him and the press that it was they who won for him — have any inkling of the scale of the haemorrhage of likability which they have inflicted upon the Labour party over lit- tle more than six weeks. Credit in politics resembles bullion in banking. It is a backing reserve, not a trading currency. Stashed away like gold in the vaults, political credit is the silent guarantor of a hundred small daily transactions between politicians and citizen- ry, and between politicians and the press.

It is a mysterious thing composed of many elements, but principal among them is the world's belief in a politician's probity, honour, and intellectual and moral courage; and also a belief in strength, in efficacy, in grip, in the reputation for unbreakability certain political dynasties may acquire. Margaret Thatcher accumu- lated a vast stock of it, but lost a good mea- sure over Westland, and a little over the Belgrano. One of the Tories' few remaining strengths has been John Major's personal credit; but his party's credit, and that of some of his colleagues, is sadly depleted.

At the beginning of this year, Tony Blair did not lack credit. There had, of course, been assaults upon his reputation by enemies and sceptics, but he had sustained mostly scratches, not deep wounds. The `Bambi' tag may have stung, but Bambis do not bounce cheques and the original, if a little saccha- rine, carried credit in the forest. The Tory charge that Blair had sold out on the beliefs of his youth weighed with some Tories and with many on the Left, but the rest of Britain hardly thought the less of a man for changing his mind — and in a sensible direction.

A certain nervy intolerance in his deal- ings with dissenters, a certain unwillingness to take and face opponents' arguments on their high ground, and a curious apparent fear of contradiction, aroused (in some of us) suspicions about the Labour leader's intellectual self-confidence; but his ambi- tion was palpable and his determination strong, and our fears were for the most part laughed at or dismissed as Tory propagan- da. Much of the press fell for New Labour lock, stock and barrel. And even those of my colleagues concerned about the nuts and bolts attaching the wings to the fuse- lage retained a great respect for the man and the team he was leading — though there was growing irritation with his 'com- munications' minders.

To those kinder souls than I — those pre- viously prepared to give Mr Blair's team the benefit of the doubt — this election cam- paign has been a dismaying experience. It is not enough to grunt indulgently that every- one plays dirty during general elections: that pensions scare was offside. It will not wash to mutter that Blair was well (if cynically) advised to refuse to debate with Major. Call- ing for a debate, then running away, was craven. The mulish suppression of individu- ality among Labour candidates has looked desperate, the gagging of dissent over EMU insecure. The advertising campaign — dis- sembling slogans on tutti-frutti colours has been cynical, while the tax pledge will come back to haunt Gordon Brown. Above all, the abiding memory of those of us who have trailed around Britain behind this out- fit — an outer core of lobotomised bouncers and officious prats with mobile phones sur- rounding an inner core of preening and self- important courtiers, encircling one pale, tense, brittle princeling mouthing platitudes — has been of a court stalked by some nameless internal terror.

Those of us who were suspicious long before April 1997 felt rather lonely last year. It seemed as though we were few. I have been conscious of irritating readers in quite large numbers, especially in the Times. But we Blairosceptics are shortly to discover that we were in fact part of a much larger band. Our friends and colleagues will be telling us that they were with us all along — it just appears that we did not notice at the time. Ah, well.

After Westland, Denis Healey quoted at Margaret Thatcher what Nigel Birch MP quoted at his leader, Harold Macmillan, after Profumo: those lines of Robert Browning's ending, 'Never glad, confident morning again!' But with Mrs Thatcher and Mr Macmillan the disillusion set in during the afternoon. With Mr Blair it is only dawn, and already the nation's stock of gladness is running low. Who will be Blair's Birch? The years ahead should prove fasci- nating.

Matthew Pains is parliamentary sketchwriter and columnist of the Times.