What no one dares to tell the PM

Twenty years after her accession to power, the Iron Lady must shudder at times. "The government is preparing to join the single currency? Pour me a whisky. The government is lowering the age of consent, giving trade unions some new rights, releasing those Irish terrorists and imposing a minimum wage? Make it a double."

Yet the Lady continues to hover over British politics in one significant way. Her style of politics has endured. Indeed, it has endured to such an extent that Britain's readiness to bomb Iraq and Serbia can be linked directly to her stance in the Falklands and the Gulf. Post-Thatcher, leadership in Britain has to be ostentatiously "strong", while Britain itself has to be one of the world's tough guys. It may be underperforming economically but, when armed might is called for, Britain is always the first on the scene. So Tony Blair has become new Labour's answer to the Iron Lady, flying to Washington to stiffen the backbone of Britain's less hawkish allies, and speaking of his "iron resolve" to win the war.

Thatcher's "iron resolve", it is easily forgotten, led to her downfall. So certain was she of the popularity and fairness of the poll tax that colleagues did not dare challenge her. Chris Patten, the unlikely minister in charge of the tax, told me dolefully at the time: "I go to Margaret Hilda with the estimated figures for the community charge levels and she simply doesn't believe me." Patten was not going to jeopardise his career by challenging her further. Nor was anyone else, except for Nigel Lawson, her chancellor, whom she never really forgave. For Thatcher, this was a mark of "strong leadership". But the sign of a genuinely strong leader is one who is capable of appreciating intelligent dissenters in the cabinet and beyond. Sometimes, those outside the Downing Street bunker are right.

Blair is a very different leader from Thatcher in many ways. He would never introduce the equivalent of a poll tax. Even if he did, he would pull back before it was too late. He is alert to the vote- losing potential of any policy. But in international affairs, he seems almost consciously to be emulating the Lady.

As I have written here before, Britain and others are contesting a self-evidently "just" war in which cynical considerations of political gain at home have played no part. Before the war began, Blair was already hugely popular. But that does not mean it was right to start a war when the means of concluding it were uncertain and the nature of the conclusion was far from clear.

Yet is anyone who is close to Blair raising questions? Notoriously, advisers of strong leaders tend to tell their masters what they want to hear. Cabinet meetings are short and it would take a brave minister indeed to question what is happening. Clare Short has been singled out for praise by Downing Street for her unflinching resolve. What price for any minister who did not match it? Let us not forget a reshuffle will take place this summer. Under an iron leader, who will say: "Hold on a minute, what are we letting ourselves in for?"

Gordon Brown would be the only minister in a strong enough position with Blair to express reservations. I doubt if he has, although he will be alarmed by the long-term financial implications. Indeed, last summer there was an under-reported battle between Brown and Blair over the defence budget. Blair intervened directly to resist the Treasury's demand for deeper cuts. Now spending on defence is likely to be much higher than the level reluctantly accepted then by Brown. At a recent meeting of the Commons Defence Select Committee, a senior official from the Ministry of Defence revealed that the department had overspent by £200 million last year, largely because of commitments in the Gulf. Goodness knows what the final cost of winning the war and maintaining the peace in the Balkans will be. Brown looked a little twitchy when I asked him about it in a New Statesman interview recently.

But that does not mean Brown would benefit politically from a war that went badly wrong. Some in the media are asking "Where is Brown?" - suggesting that he is keeping his head down in the hope of boosting his position if Blair has a bad war. This is simplistic nonsense, for many reasons: if the war goes badly wrong, it will be an expensive mistake, jeopardising Brown's plans for the economy; Brown will only succeed Blair if a Blair premiership is deemed to be a success; Brown is too closely associated with new Labour to promote himself as the anti-Blairite candidate in a leadership contest; chancellors never have a high profile in wars. Sir Geoffrey Howe did not during the Falklands and nor did Norman Lamont in the Gulf war. When Brown is not in the Treasury, he is presiding over the election campaign in Scotland, where he is ubiquitous in the media, answering questions on everything, including the war.

So there is a possibility that nobody is directly challenging the Prime Ministerial will. Yet this most precarious of wars demands a different response from iron resolve. Did anyone dare say to Blair that it would be a mistake emphatically to rule out the use of ground forces at the beginning? Now so many more questions arise. Will Milosevic be allowed to stay on? If not, who will replace him? How will Russia be kept at bay while the war is brought to what will probably be an equivocal conclusion? What of the risk of further splits in Nato over tactics? And how to police the peace?

When Blair became leader of his election-losing party in 1994 the situation demanded, and was conducive to, a bout of "strong" leadership. The Balkans conflict requires constant self-questioning and pragmatic manoeuvring. The Iron Lady should have cause to shudder a little more.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special