There is something strange about Tony Blair, something little noticed because it runs entirely against the grain of everything we know about his government. Perched though he is atop a muckheap of media-merchants, pagers and pledge cards, the Prime Minister has chosen not to engineer his own reputation.
Nothing known about him gives us any good reason to doubt that he is what he seems to be: a Christian lawyer who lived in Islington, who probably ironed his jeans at university and really didn’t smoke pot. He has never had a makeover and never would. He has never affected to be anything other than prosperously middle class. He has never invented working-class roots. He has never pretended to any ideological insight beyond a blend of moral conservatism with a liberal conscience. His hair, his clothes, his friends and his opinions, his life as a proficient but not brilliant lawyer – what you see is what you get. In this, he has achieved the oddity of becoming one of the least-spun major party leaders of modern times.
Blair faces one of the most-spun. Stand back for a moment from the folksy simplicity of phoney Tony versus straight-talking William, and the absurdity of the stereotypes is inescapable. “It’s all been an act. It’s only ever been an act. He’s the biggest actor in town,” William Hague said of the Prime Minister in his conference speech. And this from the man who asked his audience to “come with me to the Rother Valley”. The Rother Valley indeed. No “journey with me to Insead management school, travel on with me to Shell Oil”.
One might think, from William Hague’s praise of people who “moved to Ilkley and not Islington” and who “holiday in Tenerife and not Tuscany”, that he lived among these worthy folk or dreams of emulating them. But the truth is at odds with the sales pitch. Hague sensibly fled from his roots in soda-pop manufacture at the first opportunity, to the Oxford Union, McKinsey’s, the House of Commons and the Fulham Road.
Sitting in his fourth parliament and his sixth year as party leader, Tony Blair has yet to offer anything other than a single version of his character. Three years into his leadership, William Hague’s workshop has turned out a truckload. Underlying the contradiction between Hague the inclusive baseball-cap wearer and Hague the tykish zealot is a man who is clever, flexible and empty. He no more has roots than a piece of seaweed.
The interestingly anchored man is Tony Blair, the self-professed “pretty straight sort of guy”. Which was the right boast delivered in the wrong cause: cornered over the indefensible, his dealings with Bernie Ecclestone, the Prime Minister reached for his own moral confidence about who he is. This, perhaps, is the key to the simplicity of his character, even when the tools for his reinvention lie scattered all around him. Durham Choir School, a Fettes education and a Scottish surname could be spun into a northern childhood, free from the Italianate fripperies of north London. Likewise, the Merseyside brass-neck of his in-laws could be turned to good use by a man eager to draw a veil over a comfortable, Conservative background.
But he has not drawn a veil over it; he has shrugged his shoulders, grinned, and revelled in it. Blair really thinks he is a straight sort of guy. A less rooted man would have shied away from sending his children to selective schools. A premier more worried about how he came across would have buried his Christianity.
And, in this, Blair emerges as curiously postmodern, for the spin-merchant’s makeover is an ancient recourse in British politics. Insecurity and reinvention are the hallmarks of high office. Winston Churchill painted himself as British bulldog, with a bow-tie and a cigar as his props, but he was equally a depressive attention-seeking alcoholic with a talent for oratory on the wireless. Simply, a “radio personality who outlived his prime”, wrote Evelyn Waugh.
Ted Heath took advice and sold himself as a yachting man of principle, a One Nation Tory. Unspun – and before they told him to develop the sailing hobby – he was a careerist proto-Thatcherite from the Commons machine, whose only non-political devotions were his mum and his piano. Margaret Thatcher, the apparently resolved Conservative ideologue, started inventing herself while at Oxford. She began her career as something of a modern woman in the Fifties, daringly married to a divorcee, then took voice-training, tried a stint as a caring woman, packed that in for an iron lady’s helmet, and ended up as a pantomime dame.
It may just be possible to imagine Alastair Campbell advising his Prime Minister to tweak his personal poll-rating by discovering a lifelong passion for rock-climbing. But it is inconceivable that Tony Blair would agree. Blair would not submit to being pushed around like that by reputation managers. Perversely, the master of a spin-led government has a personal confidence that would not countenance spin.
Tony Blair has found little to hide. Over the years, the hair has got a bit shorter, the vowels a little more estuarine. Stunned by his nose-diving popularity, he tried mumbling a few old Labour phrases in Brighton, but without conviction, because that Third Way stuff really is what he believes; the Third Way is his irreducible core, and he is almost chilling in his failure to dissimulate.
Far from cheapening him, the discovery that the public Blair is only a mask might deepen his reputation. For, more spun against than spinning, Tony Blair’s essential integrity carries a danger. It is that, unpractised at reinventing himself and unwilling to pretend, he may suffer when voters grow bored with the man they see.
“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them I have others,” runs the old political joke. But if you don’t like Tony Blair’s principles, he doesn’t have any others. Blair is what he is. It is little short of shocking.