Tony Blair has lost the knack of making himself popular

by Andrew Gimson | TheDaily Telegraph | November 29, 2003

A most bewildering thing has happened to Tony Blair. He has become unfashionable. No wonder he feels disorientated, and is suffering from stomach pains. His fate is the awful fate of all fathers of teenage children who try to go on looking and behaving as if they were young and hip.

They become an embarrassment, and the more they try to surmount that embarrassment by arranging stunts that are meant to demonstrate how energetic and modern and in touch they are, the more they make us cringe.

Nothing in the Prime Minister's life has prepared him for this cruel loss of the knack of making himself popular. He has always known how to charm people, and has always adapted himself, with an artistry all the more impressive for seeming effortless, to the spirit of the times. He was never the kind of awkward, tongue-tied public schoolboy who finds it difficult to talk to women, or to people with a different upbringing to his own.

In his youth, he was already classless. He could do a plausible imitation of Mick Jagger, yet, as one of his friends from that time noted with admiration, he also knew, on happening to be introduced to a very grand aristocratic lady from an older generation, how to strike up an easy, relaxed conversation with her, too.

His beautiful manners stood him in good stead when he went into politics. He charmed the Labour stalwarts who chose him to represent a constituency of former pit villages in County Durham, and he became Prime Minister because he charmed millions of people who used to vote Tory.

Yet now an increasing number of us are fed up to the back teeth with him. Traditional Labour supporters were the first to express their disgust: in their eyes, Tory Tony is beneath contempt, a traitor to his own party.

This did not matter - in fact, was a considerable asset - as long as it helped to prove to a much larger number of people of moderate political views that Mr Blair was a sound chap who had repudiated the idiocies of socialism.

The idea that Michael Howard might one day come to exercise a greater appeal to Middle England than Mr Blair would, until recently, have seemed pure fantasy. Mr Howard is, or was, very widely disliked even among Conservatives, let alone in the trendy Islington set among whom the Blairs lived and moved until they went to Downing Street.

I know a shire Tory, a great admirer of Macmillan, who resigned from the Conservative Party because she was so enraged by Mr Howard's behaviour as Home Secretary, and in particular by the way in which he treated the prisons, at one of which she served on the board of visitors.

To Mr Blair, it must seem rather unfair that we should even consider deserting him for such an ogre. Yet this is what the YouGov poll published yesterday in this newspaper shows that we are doing, and to quite a large extent the Prime Minister is the author of his own misfortunes.

For there has always been a kind of dishonesty about the way in which he sells himself. He is a man who will do everything he can to convince you that he is on your side.

One cannot blame him for this - it is his natural game, and he has won two general elections by playing it - but after a time it becomes unspeakably annoying to have tough policies marketed as if they were simply a new, improved form of soap powder.

Mr Blair took us to war in Iraq. That was a tough and courageous decision, yet when he went on television to try to defend it to a group of women who had deep and sincere objections to the war, he appeared to think he could win them round simply by exercising his blokey, nice-guy charm.

He failed lamentably, because the more he strove to show that he understood their concerns, the more he infuriated them by rejecting their arguments. His belief that they would abandon their objections in the face of his evident niceness was an insult to their intelligence.

The Prime Minister is quite intelligent enough to know that there are times that call for toughness rather than emollience. At the end of his last party conference speech, the one in which he claimed, somewhat implausibly, that "I've not got a reverse gear", he delivered himself of a biblical-sounding declaration: "If we faint in the day of adversity, our strength is small."

When he spoke those words, he was talking mainly to himself. He imagines that, as long as he remains unfailingly active, and ignores any worrying signs from his heart or his stomach that he is overtaxing himself, he will prove his continued political virility.

Like the middle-aged father who aspires, ludicrously, to keep up with his children, he has failed to remember that no man can become young by over-exerting himself. Instead of relaxing, and concentrating on the few matters where his personal intervention might make a useful difference, he goes on trying to control everything.

All this gives Mr Howard wonderful opportunities, which he appears more than ready to grasp. He is not a poor man's Tony Blair: he may once have been young, but he has never, in the opinion of most us, been particularly charming.

I know his friends drone on about what wonderful company he is at the dinner table, but there is room for more than one opinion about that, and even if it were true, it is not why we might consider entrusting the government of our country to him.

We admire him, or may come to admire him, because he is tough and intelligent and may, unlike Mr Blair, have the detachment needed to judge which matters need his personal attention and which can be left to colleagues.

His reputation for nastiness is one of the most valuable things about him. It means that when, as he did this week, he attacks the Government's monstrous plan to take away the children of asylum seekers, he cannot be accused of weakness.

He has the strength to say the decent and civilised thing. We look to him for plain speaking, not for feelgood blather. As Mr Blair struggles to adopt a new and tougher tone of voice, for example in the vital negotiations that have started on the European Union's new constitution, a horrible possibility ought sometimes to occur to him and his advisers: that he could end up sounding like a poor man's Michael Howard.

Posted by: Hazem on Dec 12, 03 | 4:06 pm