Broken promises. By delivering a softer, more socially inclusive version of Thatcherism to Middle England, Tony Blair earned the adulation of his party. Where did it all go wrong, wonders David Marquand

The Unfulfilled Prime Minister: Tony Blair and the end of optimism

Peter Riddell <em>Politico's, 2

Peter Riddell is the PC Plod of British political journalism. He is totally reliable, impressively thorough, utterly honest, and formidably unimaginative. Reading his attempt to appraise the premiership of Tony Blair is like watching a portly suburban householder trying to catch a moonbeam. For Blair is everything that Riddell is not. He is unreliable, inconstant, light on his feet, irked by administrative routines and economical with the truth. He is also a political genius, with an uncanny capacity to spot new openings in the market place of rhetoric and image.

It is a myth that Blair made the Labour Party electable. Labour would have won the 1997 election if John Smith had lived, or, for that matter, if Gordon Brown had become party leader instead of Blair. Once Black Wednesday had destroyed the Conservatives' reputation for economic competence, Labour would have been hard put to lose. It is true, however, that Blair put the "new" into new Labour, and the size of his majority reflected this.

He saw that Middle England had had a belly-full of crusading ideologies; that it wanted a softer, kinder, more socially inclusive version of Thatcherism, delivered by a more charismatic version of John Major. With extraordinary panache, this was what Blair offered. He was as charismatic as Margaret Thatcher and as nice as Major - an unbeatable combination. He also saw that, to make his offer credible, he had to break with Labour's past, and that he had to symbolise the break clearly, dramatically and unmistakably. That was the meaning of his breathtaking decision to campaign for the removal of the old Clause Four from the party constitution. By succeeding where Hugh Gaitskell had failed, by charging the enemy guns and capturing them with contemptuous ease, he signalled not just that Labour was now a new and different kind of party, but that he was a new and different kind of leader. It was his finest hour.

The glow of that achievement - magnified by the magical May morning when he won the most crushing anti-Conservative victory of that century - lasted a long time. It was clear from the first that Blair is a profoundly conventional man, more conventional than Major and infinitely more conventional than Thatcher. But it is almost a law of British politics that Labour prime ministers are more conventional than Conservative ones, so there was nothing particularly surprising about that. It was also clear that he is profoundly unintellectual - although, as Roy Jenkins once pointed out, the same was true of Franklin Roosevelt. Even in the early days, there was something a little naff about the Blair regime, symbolised by the farce of the Millennium Dome, Blair's hammed-up reading at the funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales and the talk of Cool Britannia. But that was forgivable and anyway trivial.

What mattered was that Blair carried through the programme of constitutional reforms he had inherited from John Smith, and undid the damage that Thatcher had done to Britain's relationship with the rest of the European continent. Though he funked the promised referendums on the euro and electoral reform, the first term brought a profound, if incoherent, reconstruction of the British state, one more far-reaching than anything seen since the Reform Act 1832, and a draining of Europhobic poison from the body politic. It also brought the consolidation of a new, Labour-led social coalition, comparable with that led by Stanley Baldwin between the wars, but with a mildly centre-left orientation (Baldwin's having been mildly right of centre). Had Blair given up the reins of office immediately after his 2001 election victory, he would have gone down as the most successful leader in Labour's history.

All this gives a tragic quality to his subsequent fate. Of British prime ministers during the past century, only Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and Anthony Eden after Suez have fallen further in reputation and moral authority. Naturally, there have been occasional upward blips. One such followed the Hutton report last year, and a bigger one followed the London bombings in July. Yet it is never wise to attach much importance to short-term fluctuations in the Westminster stock exchange of reputations. The long-term trends are what matter; and these have gone against Blair ever since his ill-starred Iraq adventure. The May election was won by Brown, not by Blair; and in any case, a victory won on the back of 35 per cent of the popular vote and a little more than 20 per cent of the total electorate is not much to write home about. The bitter truth is that Blair's third government is one of the least legitimate in modern British history, and its lack of legitimacy is directly attributable to its head.

The real tragedy, however, is that Blair has moved backwards rather than forwards on the issues that should have given him his legacy. British membership of the euro has been indefinitely postponed, and with it Blair's early hopes of becoming a major player "at the heart of Europe". Ignorant and self-righteous sermons on the need for mainland Europeans to pull their economic socks up have merely widened the gulf of principle and understanding between Britain and the core states of the European Union. Meanwhile, the democratisation of the British state has stalled. Our electoral system is still a scandal; and it is clear that there is no hope of reforming it so long as a majority Labour government remains in power. The Human Rights Act of 1998 - the greatest single feather in the first Blair government's cap - has become a target for ministerial contempt. The second chamber still lacks the legitimacy it needs to become an effective check on the abuse of power. Due process and the rule of law, the main prerequisites of pluralist democracy, have been systematically traduced.

Why has Blair betrayed his early promise and his own better self? Was his early promise always misleading, and his better self an illusion? Was the Iraq war the only begetter of his loss of credibility or were deeper forces - political or psychological or both - at work? Was his tragedy structural or personal? Was it written in the stars either of the British state tradition, or of the authoritarian tendencies that have always been present in Labour Party culture, or was it the product of a series of unhappy accidents?

These are the most important questions raised by Blair's long slide downhill, and they are central to the dilemmas of conscience and strategy that now face British liberals and social democrats. However, instead of trying to answer them, Riddell focuses on the itsy-bitsy policy minutiae beloved of think-tank wonks and the classier political journalists. He sagely concludes that Blair's prime ministership has been a curate's egg, successful in some areas and unsuccessful in others, and that it is too soon for a final verdict. The mountain has laboured and brought forth a mouse. Rarely has an opportunity been more sadly missed.

David Marquand's most recent book is Decline of the Public: the hollowing out of citizenship (Polity Press)