Tony Blair has dominated British politics. Over a dozen years he made the Labour party electable and the Conservative Party unelectable. In 1997 he effectively ended John Major’s political career; at the 2001 election he crushed the able William Hague; and in 2005 forced Michael Howard so far onto the back foot that the respected former Home Secretary struck few telling blows. It has been Blair’s decade; all of politics has pivoted on him.
This domination has changed the language of politics too. Since Churchill, no other Prime Minister has orated with Mr Blair’s fluency and none before him publicly conversed with such style.
With three large majorities, a consequently emasculated Parliament and – for 10 years at least – a largely supine Labour Party, Mr Blair could have done what he wanted.
Yet, his current preoccupation with justifying his legacy suggests that the case doesn’t make itself. His doubts about how he will be remembered are understandable given that every poll shows profound public disenchantment.
Most commentators will attribute the Prime Minister’s failure to fulfil his potential to one policy, one act – the decision to go to war in Iraq. The case is persuasive enough; from a dossier sufficiently dodgy to persuade us of the case for the war to the elusive exit strategy, the Government’s Iraq policy has absorbed the Prime Minister as persistently as it has eroded popular faith in him and all his works. But despite the plausibility of the case made by those who blame Iraq for Blair’s decline, for me, it is far from being the whole story.
To start with, I am not convinced that Labour ever really took to Tony Blair. His Anglo-Catholicism must sit uneasily with a party which was once said to owe as much to Methodism as to Marx, and his increasingly assertive Atlanticism certainly grates with old Labour socialists and EU enthusiasts. His background, manner and meter are, plainly, not of the Labour mould and how galling it must be to Labourites that it is this difference from them which explains his electoral appeal.
Yet, there is still a more fundamental reason for Tony Blair’s fall. In his remarkably defensive resignation speech the PM tacitly admitted that in his beginning was his end. The character of his 1997 victory raised expectations so high (“too high” he said) that they proved impossible to meet. Things don’t only get better; as circumstances change some things worsen. The higher hopes are raised the further they have to fall. Take Mr Blair’s foolish pledge that his administration would be “purer than pure”. Surely he knew that no such government exists this side of the Kingdom of God!
Hype and spin, the defining characteristics of New Labour, of which – by the way – Gordon Brown was joint-architect, sowed the seeds of bitter popular disappointment. As the government made mistakes, the electorate first felt cheated and then angry. And – as Mr Blair said of a different government in 1997 – people know when “enough is enough”.