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Greasy Pole: The Disappearing Leader

Greasy Pole

Whatever has happened to Tony Blair? This question does not refer to his recent visit to hospital, apparently to have treatment for an irregular heart beat, thus setting off a storm of speculation about whether this was another of those conditions which conveniently enable faltering politicians to slip out of office accompanied by waves of sympathy instead of squirts of venom. Of course we might have been referring to that incident, if only because of the light it threw on medical services. Blair has a problem with his heart and on the same day he is in hospital getting it fixed. No waiting about in Accident and Emergency to be seen by an exhausted junior doctor. Thousands of other people – the kind, who vote for Blair and his reforms of what are called public services, including the NHS – would be lucky to get treatment for the same condition in a matter of months. (A letter from someone who had suffered from the same problem three years ago, published in the Guardian on 21 October, recalled waiting ten weeks between diagnosis and treatment). No, the Tony Blair we are asking about is that youthful ex-barrister with the engaging smile, the elegant high flying wife and the adorable children. The kind of man you would be glad to have your daughter bring home to Sunday tea because he was so open and trustworthy. What happened to him?

Well he got to be Prime Minister, that's what happened to him, which made it a bit difficult for him to keep up all that stuff about being honest and trustworthy. From the beginning, events began to jolt his image out of shape. There was the matter of the million pound donation from Bernie Ecclestone, in return for being allowed to advertise fags on racing cars. Then there was the matter of Peter Mandelson and the generous loan from a fellow minister – and then, after Honest Tony had let Mandelson back into the fold, having to kick him out again over the Hinduja passport scandal. One such incident followed another and still the people who have to wait for treatment under the NHS carried on believing in him, voting for his party. But things began to change when Honest Tony used his image too often, to persuade the people, in face of all the evidence, that there were massively destructive weapons in Iraq. Perhaps he assumed that his reputation would justify starting a war in which thousands of people would be killed and an unhappy country would be made chaotically unhappy.

Reverse gear
As a result the “Trust me, I'm Tony” routine doesn't work any more. For example in his evidence to the Hutton enquiry Blair tried what he may have thought was a clinching denial of misleading the Commons over the weapons in Iraq. He made it sound quite simple; if he had deceived the Commons, he said, it would have been a resigning matter. But he didn't resign – so therefore, by implication, he did not deceive the Commons. That kind of argument may have convinced those who were eager to be impressed but in fact it was no more than a circular fallacy which can be used to justify almost any action. Many a criminal (the kind who operates outside Parliament) must have admired the technique and promised themselves to use it, the next time they are helping the police with their enquiries.

There have recently been signs that, faced with an unpleasant reality and fighting to stay above the wave of disillusionment, Blair has resorted to the established technique of denying that it is all happening. Like Hitler in the Berlin bunker in the Spring of 1945, refusing to believe that the Reich was at an end. Like Margaret Thatcher when her leadership was on the point of collapse, with the men in grey suits getting ready to pay her a call, persisting with policies which she was advised were catastrophic vote losers and blanketing off the facts with declarations that she would fight on and win because there was no alternative.

Blair's version of this technique was encapsulated in his speech at this year's Labour conference, when he declared that he couldn't go back on his policies because he doesn't have a reverse gear. In some ways this was an unwise choice by his speech writers because the best known example of the absence of a reverse gear is a cramped, low slung, fragile, elongated egg shell of a car which is as erratic in its handling as you would expect from a three-wheeler, and is uncomfortable and terrifying for its passengers. Famously, it is the preferred mode of transport for Del Boy of Only Fools and Horses – and Del Boy is a pathetic fantasist whose feeble scams persistently come to grief but who never sees any need to change his attitude. In any case it is not true that Blair has never gone back on his policies. He used a reverse gear over the Bernie Ecclestone money and over Peter Mandelson; he probably wishes he had a reverse gear over the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. And then there are the many examples of his government going into reverse over their fine promises to alleviate poverty, solve the problems in health care, make education better and more accessible, run a more open style of government . . .

Brent East
So the ever-youthful, honest Tony Blair who made it into Number Ten has disappeared and in his place is a man presiding over a government which grows more unpopular by the day. He has imposed polices which have enraged Labour Party supporters, sometimes because they are indistinguishable from those of the Tories. Outside his party there is a sense of cynicism, not just about Blair but about the processes of democracy itself. The Brent East by-election was a staggering blow for Labour, as well as for the Tories but it would have been more significant if there had not been such a low turnout of voters. Behind the rejection of the Labour Party there was apathy with the whole process. That may be Blair's biggest achievement; it has yet to be seen how enduring and how dangerous it will be.

The speculation about the nature and consequences of Blair's heart condition was evidence of the unrest about him. Any more results like Brent East and it will be time for nervous Labour MPs, especially those holding onto marginal seats, to send him off into the sunset in his wobbling, reverse-lacking three wheeler. Then it will be time for them to elect a new leader, who will promise much and please many with a fresh approach and new promises to unlock the way to prosperity and security for us all. There will be new slogans and sound bites. That will be before the real experience sets in, when the new leader is exposed as a tawdry fraud. At some stage it might occur to the people who vote for leaders and for the social system in which leadership has so prominent a role, that there is a better way. Among the despair and anger at leaders like Blair it is sometimes apparent that there is some human concern for the welfare of the world's people. All that is lacking is the knowledge and the confidence that we must do better – and, vitally, that we can do better.

IVAN