Blairism: just a footprint in the sand?

So, new Labour is alive and kicking. Tony Blair's decision to delay the election from May to June was not hugely significant in itself: Labour would have won big in May, now it will win big in June. But though the much-agonised-over decision will not make much difference to the majority, it tells us a lot about how this government really works. Without Blair's personal involvement, it would have been May. The party was for May. The Millbank machine was for May. The MPs were for May. The Cabinet was for May.

But this is Tony's government and Tony went for June. Admittedly, choosing the election date, one of the almost medieval powers held by Downing Street, to the amazement and contempt of democratic foreigners, is always the particular prerogative of the prime minister - who can then be dumped on if he gets it wrong.

But what was really interesting was how Blair chose whom he talked to, what counted and how the news came out. In all these, the interests of the Labour Party were virtually ignored. It may have been a small move in campaigning terms, but it was a huge kick in the teeth for the party. It would never have happened under the lost premierships of Neil Kinnock or John Smith, and it is a salutary reminder of how Blair views the party today.

Looking back, and knowing what we do about Blair, it may seem inevitable that he should have gone with what the voters and the focus groups wanted, rather than what the party wanted. It was in fact a hard call, as the Prime Minister candidly admits. We shouldn't underestimate the pressure he came under: all those plans, grids, expectations, post-election holiday bookings - all that momentum. Right up until the last minute, there was a widespread assumption across the political parties that the election would go ahead on 3 May because . . . well . . . everyone was ready.

Blair has never shrunk from confronting the party - as the renewed biography (out this month) of him by John Rentoul reminds us. Perhaps his most decisive period was in the mid-1990s, when he pushed through dramatic changes to the party - abandoning Clause Four, diminishing the power of the party conference and curbing the influence of the National Executive Committee. By contrast, he has been, as Rentoul says, "an unnaturally careful, sharp and risk-averse politician" when it comes to public opinion. He does not take on, or try to lead, public opinion, as Margaret Thatcher did. His election decision, that the risk of a rural backlash was worse than the risks of delay, was a classically cautious Blair call.

What about the people he turned to? Peter Mandelson has briefed very widely that he was foremost among them, which has enraged those who believe it, or amused those who think he exaggerates his current influence. But Blair certainly listened intently to his inner-office staff, to Alastair Campbell, Anji Hunter, Sally Morgan and his polling guru, Philip Gould. He consulted his long-standing friends, Charlie and Derry - milords Falconer and Irvine. He thinks, rightly, that they have more of an instinct for Middle England than do most of his Cabinet colleagues or many Labour staffers.

This takes us to the next obvious conclusion from all this - that new Labour, or the "modernising project", or whatever we call it, is tiny. Blair has failed to grow a substantial supporting group of heavyweight but loyal believers inside his party. He does not turn instinctively to his Cabinet, nor to more junior ministers awaiting promotion, nor to powerful allies on the Labour back benches. At this stage, Thatcher didn't control her Cabinet entirely, but she had Tebbit, Ridley, Lawson, Joseph and Howe all solidly behind her, plus a large phalanx of younger but rising believers studded across the back benches and the lower reaches of government.

Blair has nothing like this at all. None of the Cabinet big-hitters - Blunkett, Straw, Prescott, Cook - is a fully paid-up Blairite. He relies instead on a group you can count on the fingers of two hands, few of them elected, all of them personal friends to some degree. This may turn out to be his biggest strategic failure of all. Because these modernisers are all friends, they go when he goes. Indeed, far from the popular image of "Millbank clones" taking over Labour, the trade unions and mainstream centre left have done very well in candidate selection. It is a serious matter for Blair: at this rate, he will leave no lasting legacy or mark on the party. Blairism could be just a footprint in the sand.

Finally, think about how the decision was leaked, to the Sun, in order to buy off what would have been huge anger from the paper at having its original "scoop" - that the election was on 3 May - proved wrong. This worked, in that it bought the Sun's support. But the cost in humiliated and irritated ministerial egos is high. Several ministers, and many backbenchers, too, are furious. And what exactly has the Sun been converted to? Not socialism, not progressive politics. Not Labour. It has been converted to Tony Blair, for the time being. Again, this is no legacy. It is a temporary arrangement.

All this, rather than the attacks on his "dithering" from some commentators, should give Blair cause for thought. He remains hugely popular in the country. Labour's lead still looks unchallengeable. He has made a decision that will win him friends in parts of the country that Labour rarely reaches. But this is a presidential government, Sellotaped together with personal friendships and contacts. It has not put down roots in the party or in parliament.

The "cautious" Blair has done this quite deliberately. His gamble on not taking the party with him over the past four years is a far more risky one, in the longer term, than his gamble over four weeks of electioneering.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube