World

The Blair phenomenon

A year after his landslide, the prime minister is more popular than ever

BARRY CAME May 4 1998
World

The Blair phenomenon

A year after his landslide, the prime minister is more popular than ever

BARRY CAME May 4 1998

The Blair phenomenon

BRITAIN

A year after his landslide, the prime minister is more popular than ever

BARRY CAME

IN LONDON

Robin Cook could not resist the temptation. Called upon to deliver the first in what is certain to be a week-long series of ministerial speeches celebrating the British Labour party’s triumphant return to power one year ago, the country’s combative, occasionally accident-prone foreign secretary was in a jaunty mood last week as he stood amid the Georgian splendors at London’s Royal Society for the Arts. The impending May 1 anniversary, he cheerfully told his audience of free-market thinkers, was merely “the first milestone” for the new government. Under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s leadership, he continued, the Labour party had achieved such unprecedented heights of popularity that he was confidently looking forward to commemorating many similar anniversaries—“perhaps even for two decades ahead.”

Cook may someday rue those words but, for the moment at least, Britain’s Labour

government is certainly riding high. Higher, in fact, than it was on May 1,1997, when Blair led the party to a landslide victory at the polls, winning a massive 179-seat-majority in the House of Commons and inflicting the worst defeat the Conservatives had suffered since 1832. If the public opinion polls are correct, 10 per cent more British voters would choose Labour today than they would have a year ago. And by near-unanimous consent, most of the credit rests on the shoulders of the slim 44-year-old with the wide grin and receding hairline. ‘Tony Blair, after one year in office, is the most popular prime minister in British history,” says Roger Mortimer, an analyst with Market Opinion and Research International, the United Kingdom’s leading pollster.

“More than 62 per cent of Britons at present are satisfied with the job he’s doing. And that is an approval rating he has consistently sustained since his election, something that no other prime minister has ever managed, certainly not John Major, not even Margaret Thatcher.”

No longer are there voices, as there once were, more than ready to dismiss Blair as “Bambi” or “Phoney Tony,” an essentially empty politician with not much more in his arsenal than telegenic charm, a smooth patter and a keen eye for his own advancement. Even such a persistent critic as Conrad Black’s Spectator magazine uttered a measure of faint praise last week, describing Blair editorially as “a political phenomenon in search of a mission.” If his record over the past year is a guide, however, that mission is well under way. The government can point to a number of solid achievements over the past 12 months that would do credit to many a political party, especially one that had been out of power for 18 years.

Not least of Blair’s accomplishments is, of course, the dawning prospect of the peace he helped to engineer in Northern Ireland. The draft agreement concluded on Good Friday still has to be endorsed by the electorates on both sides of Ireland’s borders on May 22. But if the voters agree, Blair will have played a key role in negotiating an end to the violent sectarian strife that has cost more than 3,000 lives over the last three decades and bedeviled Anglo-Irish relations for far longer than that. Britain’s tabloid press has already proposed Blair—along

with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell—for a Nobel Peace Prize.

While that judgment may be premature, Blair’s efforts in Ulster may have paved the way for his emerging role as a conciliator in a conflict arguably even more intractable than that among the Irish: the dispute in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. During a five-day, four-nation Mideast tour last week, Blair was able to use his peacemaking credentials—not to mention his persuasive powers and his close working relationship with U.S. President Bill Clinton—to help revive the moribund negotiations to trade Israeli-occupied land for Palestinian peace in Gaza and the West Bank. On May 4, Blair—currently the European Union president—will host a gathering in London involving Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Blair’s chances of emulating his Irish accomplishments at the impending Mideast talks in London remain slim. It is still not clear whether Netanyahu and Arafat will even meet for face-to-face discussions rather than conduct negotiations separately through Albright. The two sides remain some distance apart

on basic issues. Washington, with tacit Palestinian support, wants Israel to withdraw from 13 per cent of territories now occupied, in line with the 1993 Oslo agreement. Israel, demanding more Palestinian action to curb militant terrorism, is balking at handing back more than nine per cent. Still, the conference itself marks a step forward, no matter how minuscule. And, as one Arab ambassador in London privately remarked: “There is always the possibility that Blair may be able to work some of the magic that has made him so popular at home.”

It has, however, required more than sleight of hand to propel Blair to the place in popular esteem he now occupies. “He has shown himself to be a political genius,” argues Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University. “He has reposi-

tioned the Labour Party from the moderate left to what I like to call, for want of a better term, the radical centre.” Blair’s constitutional program certainly amounts to a radical reform of the British political system. He has already introduced sweeping change in providing Scotland and Wales with their own elected legislatures. Northern Ireland will follow if the sectarian conflict is brought to an end. The legislative wheels have been set in motion to abolish the hereditary privileges of the House of Lords, a process that would eventually see hereditary peers lose their ancient right to an automatic seat in parliament’s upper chamber. Plans are well under way to transform London’s lord mayor from an appointed to an elected post. There are, as well, advanced discussions taking

MOVING QUICKLY

Since Labour's massive victory on May 1 last

year, Prime Minister Tony Blair has:

# Helped negotiate a peace agreement for Northern Ireland.

# Held referendums approving elected assemblies for Scotland and Wales.

# Pledged to abolish hereditary peerages in the House of Lords.

# Made Britain more friendly to European integration, while insisting that it will not join a single currency for at least four years.

# Revived the “special relationship” with the United States through close ties with President Bill Clinton.

# Laid the way for an elected mayor of London.

# Allowed the Bank of England to set interest rates independently.

# Raised spending on health and education and begun an ambitious welfare-reform program, financed in part by a one-off Windfall Tax on profits of privatized state entities.

# Kept income taxes unchanged.

place on possibly replacing Britain’s timehonored first-past-the-post electoral system—the procedure used in Canada—with the kind of proportional representation common in continental Europe.

As these radical, even revolutionary, constitutional reforms have been unfolding, Blair’s government has also managed the difficult feat of pursuing conservative fiscal policies while redirecting funds into sorely underfinanced health, education and welfare programs. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown’s first budget, presented in March, held the line on taxes and spending. At the same time, the government pumped an extra $2.9 billion into the ailing National Health Scheme and an additional $6 billion into education, and it provided $8.5 billion for an entirely new program the government

labelled a “New Deal” for the unemployed, financed by a once-only Windfall Tax on profits of privatized government bodies.

The government’s finely tuned balancing act has won praise, albeit grudgingly, from some unexpected quarters. “They’ve done a much better job on public expenditure than I thought they would have,” admits Dominic Lawson, editor of the right-leaning Sunday Telegraph, whose father, Nigel, was a longtime chancellor of the exchequer under former prime minister Thatcher.

Blair’s smooth progress has been aided by circumstances, not least a booming economy with an unemployment rate of five per cent and falling. The prime minister, as well, has benefited mightily from the lack of any real opposition from the Conservatives un-

der leader William Hague, who, at 37, seems more than ready to bide his time until events are more propitious for Tory fortunes. “The Conservatives are still in trauma,” notes the Sunday Telegraph’s Lawson. “And Labour, unlike the Tories under the last government, are getting the kind of leadership from the top that transcends politics.”

To the dismay of the parliamentary opposition and the surprise of many independent observers, Blair’s team of front-bench cabinet ministers have proven to be remarkably surefooted for newcomers. Foreign Secretary Cook has managed to function despite personal problems relating to a love affair with his secretary, whom he quietly married last week after divorcing his wife. Chancellor Brown, whom Blair outmanoeuvred for the party’s leadership, is widely seen to be performing well, as are Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Home Secretary Jack Straw, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. “It’s a band with a very popular and very adroit sax player,” says Essex University’s King, “but by no means a one-man band.”

The band has struck the odd discordant note. The government landed in

early trouble over exempting auto racing from a planned ban on tobacco advertising when it was revealed that Formula One czar Bernie Ecclestone contributed $2.4 million to Labour’s electoral war chest. And several of Blair’s ministers have found themselves, like Cook, embroiled in personal scandal.

But Blair himself has remained free of taint. His wife, Cherie, has stayed largely on the sidelines, pursuing a successful career as one of London’s leading barristers while caring for the couple’s three young children— Euan, 14, Nicholas, 12, and Kathryn, 9. If Blair has any regrets about his fate, he has given public voice only to one. He told a group of schoolchildren last week that, unlike his 19th-century predecessor William Gladstone, “I no longer have time to read a book in the afternoon.” No wonder. □