The future of Tony Blair

All of a sudden, the unthinkable is on the agenda. In the New Statesman last month, Nick Cohen wrote: "Face it, he's got to go." No surprise there, perhaps, given Mr Cohen's record as a critic of Tony Blair; but it is a measure of the Prime Minister's previous unassailability that even seeing the words in print has a certain shock value. Then Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House, uttered the dread words "leadership challenge". Now Jackie Ashley, our political editor, guesting in another paper, reports that "a cabinet minister privately predicts that he could be gone by the end of the year". Moreover, the polls show Mr Blair's personal ratings slipping below those of his party - always a dangerous position for a political leader. It is true that Labour has never overthrown a leader while in office, but Mr Blair himself has changed the party in all sorts of unthinkable ways. Margaret Thatcher's fate shows that winning elections does not make a leader fireproof. The atmosphere indeed is reminiscent of the late 1980s, right down to the whispers that the Prime Minister has gone slightly mad. Is it time for a Labour version of Sir Anthony Meyer, the "stalking horse" who first stood against Lady Thatcher to test the extent of serious opposition to her? And should anybody on the left support such an idea?

On the most fundamental criteria, this government is a success. Uniquely among Labour administrations, it has presided over steady growth, avoided economic crisis and retained the wary confidence of the markets. And to accuse it of being indistinguishable from a Tory administration is preposterous. Child poverty is being slowly reduced (recent estimates suggest that, by the end of this year, Labour will have reduced the number of poor children by a million), while under the Tories it steadily rose. The tax system is manipulated to help the poor, not the rich. A national minimum wage has been introduced. And a host of issues - changes in the age of homosexual consent, reform of the House of Lords, a ban on fox-hunting - have been placed on the public agenda in a way that would be unimaginable under the Tories. One may argue about the scale and speed with which these policies are pursued, but only a fool would think we would be talking about them at all with the Tories in power.

But is that all? One does not expect a party leader to be a philosopher king, but Mr Blair's inability to articulate any core mission for new Labour, beyond the vacuous references to "modernisation", is his central failure. In the mid-1980s, Tory think-tanks and journals debated how far to go - towards more privatisations, more tax cuts, more parent power in schools, more restraints on trade unions. The principles were agreed, the debates were about their application. The equivalent Labour debates, however, betray a continuing search for principle; the debate is about direction, not distance, about where to go, not how far. Very often, ministers are agreed on what to do - more public-private partnerships, for example - but not on why.

There are four problems at the heart of Mr Blair's leadership. First, new Labour was always a marketing concept, an attempt to rebrand the party without necessarily coming to grips with its substance. (Clause Four itself, which Mr Blair so dramatically and successfully challenged, was important only because it was part of the old brand; it had never, for most party members, been a guide to policy and action.) But because brand and image are so fundamental to new Labour, it is peculiarly vulnerable to being tarnished by an Ecclestone, a Mittal or a Hinduja; a point Mr Blair implicitly acknowledges when he implores us to have faith in him as a straight, honest kind of guy. Second, Mr Blair has never put down any deep roots in his party; he has no instinct for its heartbeat and no affection for it; if anything, he and his allies seem to despise the mass membership. Third, many of his own inner beliefs remain obscure. Does he, for example, fail to defend the comprehensive school system because he himself believes in selection? Or because he believes that comprehensives are too associated with the old Labour brand? Does he support President Bush because he truly believes that we should go to war against Iraq? Or because he doesn't want his brand tarnished by any hints of pacifism or anti-Americanism?

These weaknesses in Mr Blair will become more important in the months ahead. Last year, he could not convince nearly half the electorate even to bother attending a polling station. Is he therefore the man to convince people that, if Britain is to have real improvements in public services, they need to pay higher taxes? Is he the man to guide us into a decision on whether to go in or stay out of the euro? Perhaps most important, is he the man that anyone trusts to make the right decisions on how far to support America in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere? A challenge now to Mr Blair would be an absurdity. But there has always been a brittleness about him and new Labour. In the testing period ahead, he and it may shatter more quickly and more completely than any of us thought possible.

Not very healthy, but fun

The admirable Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, and the wittiest and most persistent critic of government policies on schools, once propounded the Piccadilly Circus theory of education: wait long enough and everything comes round again. The latest revival is in school sports days, which declined in the 1990s. The Culture and Sport Secretary, Tessa Jowell, wants "vibrant and healthy competition", and believes that sport teaches "leadership and self-respect". This is the kind of silly thing that politicians believe when they have been away from normal life too long. Modern competitive sport reflects the worst of modern life (or is it the other way round?): cheating, gratuitous violence, bad language and spurious hysteria. At children's sports days, most of that comes from parents. This can make them tremendous fun, just as professional sports events are more fun when everybody argues with the referee. But a new Labour minister could never call for more fun, could she?