Does Tony Blair inhabit a parallel universe? It is a question several Labour MPs, by no means unsympathetic to him, have put to me in recent weeks. Blair genuinely believes that his concerns are the public's concerns, and that his critics' concerns and the media's concerns are peripheral. The Prime Minister's speech to the Fabian Society on 17 June provided evidence that perhaps he does genuinely occupy a different space.
The lecture, the first to be held by the still-proud socialist society, was unremarkable in news terms. But the tone was telling. Before an audience of conspicuously youthful and unfaddish people who take their politics and their allegiance seriously, Blair tried to set out what he stands for in the domestic arena. He did not venture into the frayed world of foreign affairs.
He started with a gentle gibe at the New Statesman, not the current incarnation, but an issue from 1954 that provided a verdict on Clement Attlee's government of 1945-51. "It was the only event of its kind in history which contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment," Blair quoted the NS as saying. He went on: "Today we see that great 1945 government as coming closest to building a new Jerusalem. Yet, immediately afterwards, it was routinely attacked on the left for not trying hard enough to form a socialist state as a bulwark against capitalism."
As Blair reminded the audience, on 2 August this year he will have been in power for longer than that Attlee government. He doesn't try to disguise it: he is thinking hard about his legacy. It deeply wounds and frustrates him that his achievements are underestimated. The inference from the Attlee analogy is that, in time, he will be seen as one of the greats. It was not delivered boastfully. He just believes it to be true.
For six years, Blair has ruled Britain with virtually untrammelled powers. And yet, throughout that period, he and his people have felt underappreciated and misunderstood. I recall writing early on in the government's life that many around Blair suffered from a "psychosis of opposition". They were possessed with the idea that the fourth estate had almost single-handedly destroyed Neil Kinnock. Fear begat spin. Spin begat suspicion. Suspicion begat more fear. With a second election landslide under his belt, his colleagues hoped he would break that cycle. But those emotions seem to run as deep as ever.
Having seen his new generation of Labour modernisers come and go - the Byerses and the Milburns - Blair has insulated himself with the Kinnock generation of John Reid, Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt. Theirs remains (I exclude Hewitt from this) a defensive world-view, to which Blair increasingly seems to subscribe. How else could his Fabian speech be interpreted? "Never underestimate how much the centre of gravity of British politics shifted to the right in the Eighties," Blair said, talking of a "progressive deficit". He added: "Never underestimate the cultural change needed, the battles that must be won, to shift it back to the centre-left and to prepare Britain for the future." That statement begs the question - at what point will Blair feel safe? Perhaps never. "A weak opposition can breed complacency. But it shouldn't. The Tories' reactionary ideas remain. The next election will in many ways be a very traditional battle of reactionary versus progressive politics." Why the next one more than others?
At the heart of the Blair self-justification is the juxtaposition with enemies, various enemies, united only in their resistance to his progressive politics. "They are driven by a culture of grievance, a pessimism about change, a cynicism about progress." Tuesday's offering was, in fact, a rerun of Blair's 1999 Labour conference "forces of conservatism" speech. Those forces were then variously interpreted not just as the Conservative Party, but also as those in the trade unions, public services and elsewhere who were resistant to his take on radicalism.
Time and again, Blair resorts to that old Clintonesque device, triangulation - setting up two extremes and placing himself in righteous contradistinction to both. "We're attacked from the right by those who run our public services down, from the left by those who defend the status quo," Blair proclaimed. In other words, the only person who can improve our schools and hospitals is the Prime Minister himself. To challenge his reform programme is to jeopardise the future of the universal provision of health and education. To challenge him is to open the floodgates to the Tories. This is a grim, dispiriting piece of positioning.
Blair conspicuously did not mention foundation hospitals, confining himself more generally to the idea of choice. "It is choice with equity we are advancing," he said, "choice and consumer power as the route to greater social justice, not social division." The No 10 emphasis on choice and devolving power down - to individual schools and NHS trusts - is one way of trying to improve outputs and outcomes. But, as Gordon Brown would make clear, it is only one of several, and Blair's attempts to portray all dissenters as forces of conservatism attests more to his insecurity than anything else.
The past week's events emphasised the glaring gulf between Blair's world and the media's world. He has always said that he will stand or fall on the provision of public services. Rattling out the figures, without hesitation, without qualification, he listed the number of heart operations, the number of patients treated within a month's diagnosis of cancer, the cut in waiting times, the modernisation of accident and emergency departments, the number of teachers, the number of support staff, infant school sizes, the number of school classrooms, the level of primary school tests and GCSE results.
This is Blair's "narrative". Everything else he describes as tittle-tattle. A mile away up the road, the Westminster village was getting exercised by quite different issues - whether the Prime Minister and his team had distorted intelligence material on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and whether they had botched the reshuffle that had included the abolition of the 1,400-year-old post of Lord Chancellor. Panicked into meeting an artificial deadline for his reshuffle - 12 June - Blair allowed Alan Milburn's unexpected resignation, Jack Straw's resistance to a minister for Europe of cabinet rank, and David Blunkett's rejection of a justice ministry which would have taken part of his portfolio, to turn an otherwise laudable set of legal changes into a constitutional mess. However, this did not signify, as Nicholas Soames suggested in the Commons, arrogance on the part of the PM, but underconfidence. Iain Duncan Smith, ignoring the unattractiveness of his party's adherence to the old order, came closer when he accused Blair of "running scared". Blair would have gained much and lost little if he had announced his intentions weeks earlier and invited a brief period of consultation. He did what he did because overall, as his people admit, he is rattled.
On Iraq, Robin Cook and Clare Short produced, in their different ways, beguiling performances before the Commons foreign affairs committee. Short's phrase "honourable deception" will provide another epithet to apply to the Blair years. Chances are, however, that with time against it, with Blair and his people refusing to appear, and with one or two new Labour loyalists carefully placed on it, the committee will keep its conclusions within the bounds of acceptability to the government. It is likely to focus on the mechanics of government. It is likely to recommend tighter controls on the way intelligence material is disseminated to the public. He can live with that. The intelligence and security committee, meeting in private, may prove even less of a headache. That may leave those exercised by Iraq even more exercised, and those not, not. Nevertheless, with more American troops being killed now than in the actual war, and with no signs of the reconstruction of a "liberated" Iraq, Blair will continue to struggle to justify the reasons for war and to defend the management of its aftermath.
Even if Blair is right, to coin a phrase, on the people's priorities, he is failing to see that the context of so-called peripheral issues - weapons of mass destruction and the reshuffle - have a direct impact on all aspects of public policy. They share the same decision-making process, a Prime Minister ensconced in his office, "the den", reliant on a small coterie of advisers. He invokes cabinet responsibility where it suits him - such as reinforcing his position against Brown's in the run-up to the euro announcement - but that is the exception to the rule. More open government would lead to better government.
It comes down, perhaps not to perfidy, but to fear. Even after all these years, Blair finds it hard - whether it is changes to the legal profession, whether it is the reform of public services, or whether it is his real reason for going to war with Iraq, regime change - to make his case without recourse to sleights of hands or false juxtapositions. A Prime Minister for the past six years still sees himself as a victim of forces beyond his control.