It was just before the 1997 election. The Conservatives were staring down a barrel. Every time they tried to attack Tony Blair, it backfired. Their "demon eyes" advertising campaign had met with derision. The Labour leader just didn't frighten people. He wasn't venal. He wasn't diabolical. The Tories' advertising company M&C Saatchi came up with another idea. Forget the eyes; go for the smile. The firm tested it on focus groups and came up with intriguing results. There was something unsettling about that smile. This Blair bloke just didn't seem trustworthy.
The excited admen planned a new billboard campaign featuring only Blair's lips and the words "What lies [double entendre intended] behind the smile?" Then they showed it to John Major. To their astonishment, he vetoed it. He did not want to get personal with Blair.
Major's concerns were widely shared in his party. Shortly before the 1997 campaign, a Tory minister, when I asked him what he thought of Blair, leaned over the lunch table and whispered: "I know I oughtn't to say this, but there's something about him that gives me the shivers."
Five years on, past the longest political honeymoon of modern times, two landslide victories and some unprecedented personal ratings, is the Saatchi view now the nation's view? Has Britain finally fallen out with Tony Blair? At a recent focus group, participants were asked to sum up their impressions of him. The consensus came down to two phrases: "he's always up to something", and "he's not straight".
To go more deeply into the question, the NS commissioned a poll from YouGov on what voters think of Blair personally and how this might affect policy. It goes beyond the usual headline question about trust, and it does not make good reading for the PM or his people (see panel opposite). More than two-thirds of Britons believe Blair "often twists things to tell people what they want to hear". Well short of a third see him as "basically straight and honest". Women, the 30-50 age group and ABC1s are more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only marginally.
Some of the other results are no more than mildly troubling. Although just over half the respondents agree that "Blair does not really know where he is heading", as many as 44 per cent think that he "has a long-term vision for Britain". But another result will be depressingly familiar to Downing Street strategists. Ask people in the PM's office to pinpoint the public mood, and they often use the word "disappointment". That is borne out by our poll. The biggest group of voters is disappointed in Blair (40 per cent), followed by those sympathetic with the problems he faces (35 per cent). A mere 4 per cent are proud to have him as their Prime Minister, but 20 per cent (rising to 25 per cent among the over-fifties) are angry that he is Britain's leader.
This last group, which falls broadly in line with the Mail and Telegraph view of the world, naturally includes a high proportion of people who voted Conservative at the last election (48 per cent of whom claim to be angry). But what must worry Downing Street is the softness of support for Blair among Labour voters. Of those who voted for the party in 2001, 42 per cent think Blair twists things, 25 per cent think he does not know where he is heading and 33 per cent are disappointed in him.
This is not a crisis, but it does suggest that we are heading towards a shift in the balance of power: between the party and Blair, and the people and Blair. It will affect everything he wants to do between now and retirement date, everything managerial such as delivering improvements in the public services, and everything radical such as a possible referendum on the euro. They all ultimately depend on trust - in him.
There are two schools of thought around No 10. The more relaxed one believes in the perpetuity of political cycles: ride it out, and things will naturally get better, as they did for Margaret Thatcher in her 1983-87 term. The other school works from the belief that the public will not notice a significant improvement in public services for quite some time. Blair has said that he wants to be tested on this, and this alone. So what can his aides do to plug the gaps in the meantime? Create artificial momentum with a grid of announcements and pledges? They've been outed on that one. Or play it quieter and pray that patience will prevail? Perhaps even more risky.
The Blairites reassure themselves that antagonism towards the Prime Minister remains, for most people, a spectator sport. People may mock him in the pubs or at Middle England dinner parties, but that, it seems, is as far as it goes. Confronted with an alternative - a Tory government - enough of them will return to the fold, the argument goes. But what if voters begin to connect the lack of delivery with distrust of the leader?
So far, these two issues have remained separate. Our poll shows that most people think Blair has made little difference to their family's quality of life or standard of living. The proportion who think he has made things worse outweighs those who think he has improved things, but not by a huge margin. It might be only a matter of time before they make that link between trust and delivery, as happened under Major.
Trust is crucial to Blair. Because he has sterilised the political process, his entire credibility depends on it. In the absence of a coherent ideology or sense of purpose, he has nothing else to fall back on.
Blair himself is confounded by his image. A man who rarely loses his temper, he finds it hard to understand why some people impugn his integrity. According to his close friends, it came to a head during the Black Rod fiasco. He was "hurt, angry and humiliated" by suggestions that he would want to muscle in on the Queen Mother's lying-in-state. He is similarly upset by the caricature of the brooding, intellectual powerhouse of a Chancellor contrasted with a lightweight, unprincipled Prime Minister who will say anything to look good - or, as the author and erstwhile new Labour supporter Robert Harris once wrote, Blair's penchant for "reinterpreting reality . . . retailoring himself and his history to suit the moment". (It gets worse: in his Telegraph column last Tuesday, Harris compared Blair to Hitler.)
But Blair does have history on this, personal and political. There has been the estuary accent for Des O'Connor, and the various assertions about his favourite food - sometimes fish and chips, sometimes "fresh fettuccine garnished with an exotic sauce of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers".
Politically, there has been the need to be seen to be doing something at all times, whether it be marching miscreants to cash machines or cancelling benefits for parents of truants and delinquents. At the hustings, there's always that smile. As Joe Klein wrote during the last campaign: "There is an antiseptic, impenetrable, stainless-steel brightness to Blair. There are no rough edges; few edges of any sort."
Blair prides himself on winning people over. He tries to avoid face-to-face arguments. This leads to accusations of duplicity. I remember interviewing the three factions during the hunting controversy. The protagonists - anti-hunting, pro-hunting, and the middle way group - had been to see him one after the other. Each told me, immediately afterwards, that Blair gave the impression he backed their approach.
Blair's inner circle of friends advise him to show rougher edges. Tell it as it is, they say, not as you think people want to hear it. Go back to a more old-fashioned arena of argument and persuasion. And this he seems good at. He managed Northern Ireland. He managed Kosovo. And he has worked George W Bush as much as he could, behind the scenes. International crisis management has become Blair's forte. His ratings soar during wars and diplomatic disputes, and he seems, according to those around him, more at ease with himself and the more tangible task before him.
"Tony still has reach-out capability," says one aide, using mock-ironic West Wing-speak. The reaction to him tends to be warmer from people who deal with him face to face than from those who see him only as he is filtered through the medium of television.
Blair's aides remain reasonably sanguine on the trust issue. Their research shows that it is not a blanket term; it is given and taken away issue by issue. If he can snatch it back, as he did last autumn, he can do so again - and on other subjects. The crucial question they have not resolved is: can he do it on the euro?
As for the Tories, their internal work shows, as it did in 1997, little mileage in demonising Blair. But they believe that, as well as going for "phoney", "slippery" and "he says one thing, does another", a new line of attack may work: "hapless Blair". The message will be: "This is a man who does not know what he is doing". They want it to seep into the public's consciousness as suspicions grow that he is not capable of improving public services. "We're not there yet," says a strategist. "But if these forces converge, we may be on to something."
Do we still love Blair?
Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?
Tony Blair often twists things to tell people what they want to hear 67%
Tony Blair is basically straight and honest 28%
Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?
Tony Blair does not really know where he is heading 51%
Tony Blair has a long-term vision for Britain 44%
Which of these best describes your overall attitude to Tony Blair as Prime Minister?
I am disappointed with his record and feel
he could do better 40%
I sympathise with the problems he faces
and feel he is doing his best 35%
I am angry that he is our national leader 20%
I am proud that he is our national leader 4%
Leaving aside your views of Tony Blair as a person, do you think that, since he became Prime Minister, his actions have . . . ?
Made little difference to your family's quality of life and standard of living 52%
Worsened your family's quality of life and standard of living 28%
Improved your family's quality of life and standard of living 19%
Sample size = 1,003 24-25 June 2002
Online polling by YouGov for the New Statesman.
Percentages do not add up to 100% because of don't knows