Only moments ago, it seems, everyone wanted to bask in the warm glow that surrounded Tony Blair. Pop stars and soap stars, designers and directors trooped up Downing Street to cock-tail parties at No 10. Journalists were impressed by the slickness of the new Labour machine and welcomed the changes it seemed to presage. Intellectuals eagerly offered up their ideas, and chairmen of public companies made donations.
How is it that the nimbus of success around Blair has so quickly begun to look radioactive? Those who previously would have been anxious to stress the closeness of their connections and the similarity of their outlook – from Ken Follett to Frank Field, the Daily Mail to John and Penny Mortimer – are now queueing up to complain. How is it possible for a serious politician to go out of fashion so fast?
The election of new Labour coincided (at least in London and the south-east) with a public mood of self-belief, an atmosphere of creativity and confidence. The mid to late Nineties were the time of Britpop, Britart and British designers taking over venerable French couture houses. The inhabitants of Notting Hill and, later, Hoxton considered that they were living in the trendiest places on the planet. Time magazine ran a cover story about London and brought the phrase “Cool Britannia” into vogue. Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit posed for the cover of Vanity Fair wrapped in a Union Jack duvet.
The people who believed they were central to all this – celebrities and what used to be called the chattering classes – adopted Blair as a totem. He looked the part; he was young, ate in the same restaurants as them in Islington’s Upper Street, and he was the first prime minister to keep a Fender Stratocaster at No 10.
He seemed modern and of the moment in other ways. New Labour didn’t invent spin, but it gave it greater visibility – in the process, making stars of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. “New Labour adopted the PR and marketing techniques of successfully branded companies,” says Peter Howarth, the editor of Esquire. “And for a time, in our postmodern, late 20th-century ironic mode, we thought that that was fun, and they were playing us beautifully.”
But this collusion could last only as long as Blair appealed to the self-image of Cool Brits. The timescale of delivery on promises for health and education has dismayed his former supporters. They despised the time-consuming and ill- conceived efforts to block Rhodri Morgan and Ken Livingstone. They would have preferred more radicalism and less pandering to a patronising perception of Middle England; a government that was less Dome and more Tate Modern.
Anything that is in fashion can, and will, go out of fashion. The unease had been building for some time before the Women’s Institute debacle blew a hole in new Labour’s carapace, exposing Blair’s flank to his former allies’ stinging criticisms. But the WI was probably just the catalyst, because there had been other moments previously: New Year’s Eve at Stratford station and, more seriously, the London mayoral election.
There are a couple of ironies in all this. The first, as the social commentator Peter York points out, is that, for fashionable people – eaters in pricey restaurants, consumers of art and ideas – things have only got better. The economy is in fine shape, and cultural life in the capital is multifarious and vivid. York thinks a lot of people have simply got bored, and the WI affair offered the chance of a change of rhythm.
The second irony is, even though Blair was adopted as symbolic of Cool Britannia, he was never really at one with those co-opting him. He may have been Islington’s most famous citizen, but he was hardly an archetypal Islingtonian. He is deeply religious. His views on the family and community are traditional. His taste in decor tends towards chintz sofas, rather than Eames chairs.
“I feel a bit sorry for Blair,” says Peter Howarth. “I don’t think he did court all that Cool Britannia stuff. A lot of it was foisted upon him because of the coincidence of timing.” Perhaps he should have avoided association with Cool Britannia and its celebs? If he had never consorted with the likes of Sir Peter Hall, Jeremy Irons, Harry Enfield or John Mortimer, their public disillusionment now would have less currency. He should have heeded the precedent of Harold Wilson, the only other fashionable prime minister in living memory, who began with the swinging Sixties and the white heat of technology and ended with fixing, gossip and public mistrust.
Blair is no more immune to fashion than anything else. Fashion affects where we live, what we eat, what cars we drive, our perceptions of ourselves and others.
What is frightening – in culture, let alone in politics – is that these preferences now move in such broad consensual sweeps. Howarth points out that two labels, Prada and Gucci, currently dominate fashion. The rich wear them, the high-street chains rip them off, and a large part of the population is in uniform. But it won’t be like that for ever: a few years ago, Chris Evans was hip and groovy.
The best advice to the now rather uncool Tony Blair seems to be to accept that politics is an inevitable process of disillusionment, and to concentrate on the serious, unglamorous business of reminding us where he’s coming from and what he’s going to do next. Once something has been fashionable and then, for a proper time, unfashionable, there is always, after all, the potential for it to become a classic.
Geraldine Bedell’s novel A Fabulous Fling is published by HarperCollins (£5.99)