The man who would be king

He holds cabinet meetings that last half an hour, and gives power to men accountable to nobody but h

The fifth anniversary of his accession to power is as good a time as any to ask: what is Tony Blair? His opponents on the left and right have raged against his immorality and hypocrisy, but more telling are the opinions of colleagues who once admired him. For the past few months, Channel 4 has paid me to interview smart but reasonably loyal Labour MPs. All are alarmed. None believes the Prime Minister is a prime minister in the traditional sense of a primus inter pares. Margaret Thatcher felled that notion, and Blair has finished it off.

Like everyone else, I'd accepted the commonplace that cabinet government is dead, but it was nevertheless disconcerting to stand with a camera crew in Downing Street and film ministers shuffling into No 10 for a cabinet meeting and shuffling out after 35 minutes - barely enough time to pass round the ginger nuts.

Charles Clarke defended Blair's style of government, as the chairman of the Labour Party must, but told me the cabinet was never invited to vote on the direction of government policy. It's not only votes that have been dumped. Roy Hattersley recounted how a minister asked for advice on how to fight back after Downing Street had killed a cherished policy. "Well, it all depends on how much support you have got in the cabinet," said Hattersley. The cabinet member said that the rest of the cabinet hadn't seen the disputed policy paper. "That's your own fault, isn't it?" said Hattersley, "you should have built a coalition". "Oh no," came the reply, "we aren't supposed to circulate papers to cabinet . . . it is regarded as trying to undermine the Prime Minister. We are supposed to discuss [policies] one-to-one with the Prime Minister and, when we get his agreement, then the cabinet endorses it."

In these circumstances, it's remarkable that cabinet meetings last five minutes, let alone 35. As for Blair's one-to-ones, they are one-way traffic except when Gordon Brown is in the room. To pick the most glaring instance, Blair ruled the Foreign Office long before 11 September. David Clark, Robin Cook's former special adviser, didn't bother to hide his disgust at what Blair made his Foreign Secretary do between 1997 and 2001. "Blair certainly liked the plaudits from liberal opinion for taking a tough stance on human rights," he told me. "But whenever there was a choice between power politics and ethics, he would invariably choose the former." The example he cited was arms sales to Robert Mugabe. Cook wanted to stop them, but Blair paid more attention to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who sees himself, Clark said, as a "realist" and is "dismissive of what he regards as left-wing posturing". The arms went to Zimbabwe and Cook had to defend a policy he opposed because "Robin always took the requirements of collective responsibility seriously, even if Blair didn't". Soon after the sale, Blair condemned Mugabe's election-rigging in his most sincere and anguished voice.

At least the politically literate know who Powell is. I would be surprised if one parent in 10,000 knows of Andrew Adonis, who effectively runs education policy from his office in Downing Street. Every educationalist we spoke to said Adonis was responsible for city academies, specialist schools, bringing private finance into education and the astonishing decision of a government at war against religious fundamentalism abroad to promote religious fundamentalism at home by encouraging faith schools.

His opponents believe Adonis is creating a disastrous three-tier education system that will fail working-class and many middle-class children. Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the Commons education committee, isn't an ideological enemy. On the contrary, he praises Adonis for being a "breath of fresh air" and Blair for being the first prime minister to send his children to state schools. But his belief in Adonis's policies does not stop Sheerman worrying that the "most influential person in education in this country isn't me, the chairman of the select committee, or the Secretary of State for Education", but an obscure wonk who has yet to condescend to be questioned by MPs .

The moderate and usually placid Sheerman sounded like a tribune on the barricades when he said Adonis's power was a symptom of the "crisis of British democracy [which] for the health of the nation, for the health of parliament, for the health of the political parties, we've got to do something about".

The government's decision to allow the chairmen and women of select committees to interview the PM was nowhere near enough to satisfy the minority on the Labour back benches who can utter a sentence of their own without the permission of the whips. The most radical among them want a complete separation between government and legislature. As it is, Tony Wright, the chairman of the Commons public administration committee, says the cringing culture of most new Labour MPs is such that they wouldn't hold Blair to account if they could. The 1997 parliament, the most abject of the 20th century, taught Wright that there's nothing most of his colleagues won't do to please the leader.

If Blair is not a prime minister who can be checked by the cabinet or parliament, the question remains: what is he? "A president" is a good answer. In a devastating pamphlet, The Last Prime Minister: being honest about the UK presidency (Politico's, £3.95), the Labour MP Graham Allen shows how political parties monopolised the Commons and then ceded power to their leaders; how servility is institutionalised because 142 Labour MPs are ministers and parliamentary private secretaries, and another 113 need Blair's approval if they are to retain their seats on select committees; how Downing Street suffocates initiative locally and nationally; how the media demand a presidential leader and crucified John Major for not being presidential enough; and how a civil service "which has never understood pluralism" begs to be commanded.

"Wherever you see power exercised in British society," Allen told the Channel 4 cameras, "all the threads, all the leads, all come back to 10 Downing Street; whether it's local government, MPs controlled by patronage, a second chamber controlled by appointments, or the legislative programme directly controlled by Downing Street. All power goes back to No 10."

Allen, like Sheerman, has nothing against Blair. It's just that, like Sheerman, he believes British democracy is sick. Allen's label may catch on - although you can never underestimate the ability of respectable opinion to miss the obvious and believe the world never changes. "President Blair" has a suitably alien sound for British ears and captures his concentration of control.

The only difficulty with the presidential answer to the what-is-Blair question is that there isn't a democratic president on earth who wouldn't give his eye-teeth for Blair's power. However mighty the US or French presidents may seem, they can't put their toadies in their equivalents of the House of Lords without asking the permission of the electorate. Presidential republics are bound by written constitutions. Britain is, notoriously, a monarchy.

In what feels like an age ago, the young Tony Blair realised that the monarchical power was a dangerous relic. The royal prerogative, which allows government to declare war, sign treaties, control the civil service, the intelligence services, evade the rule of law and ignore parliament and the courts, had to go.

"Massive power is exercised by the executive without accountability to parliament and sometimes even without its knowledge," noted a policy document he presented to Labour's National Executive Committee in 1993. (Those were the days when the NEC could decide Labour policy.) "Foreign affairs as a whole is virtually free from democratic control and accountability; Labour's task is to expose how little actual power parliament has in the face of government by executive decree." Blair then grew up, or rather aged, and discovered in office that unaccountable power was what he needed to declare war against just about everyone and to pack quangos with trusties.

His conversion allowed him to combine the pre-modern with the postmodern; monarchical power with manipulation of the media and control of a deracinated party that has lost its ideology and willingness to fight. When Allen asked for a list of Blair's royal prerogative powers, Downing Street refused to answer, saying it would be too expensive to name them all. To define is to limit, and Blair obviously feels that it's best to promote ignorance so he can retain the maximum room for manoeuvre.

Blair is a monarch, then? I prefer the title to president because it gets to the source of his control of patronage. Jack Straw - who in 1994 printed an essay with the resounding title "Abolish the Royal Prerogative" - has suggested an alternative. In 2000, he said that "the Prime Minister is operating as chief executive of various subsidiary companies, and you are called to account for yourself". It's "a good process", he added, without a note of shame for his willing acceptance of the subordination he condemned a mere six years earlier.

For all Straw's crawling, I like the idea of Blair as big businessman, as long as it is accepted that he is a monopolist who has destroyed the competition. In truth, you can call him Boss Blair or President Blair or King Tony, as long as you emphasise that his power is great and growing.

What is Tony Blair? He's too much.

Tony: President or King? will be shown on Channel 4 at 7pm on Saturday 4 May