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Wanted: a third-term plan

Simon Jenkins

Margaret Thatcher had a clear idea of what to do in 1987, but Labour is flaccid and empty-headed

TELL ME YOU love me. Tell me you really love me. Get up on tippy toes and kiss me and tell me I am gorgeous and clever and popular and that you will love me for ever and to bits. Just do it. Please, pretty please. Just say the word.
This was how I described Tony Blairís 2001 election victory. The technique had worked. Mr Blair seemed to have no ambition beyond a vague desire to be liked, to help his friends and save the world. But he had an instinct for the electorateís erogenous zone. It moaned and yelped and gave Labour a second term.

The instinct has served Mr Blair well again. On any showing three election victories in succession ranks Mr Blair with Baroness Thatcher among the gods of political entrepreneurship. But this time it was not a lissom teenager that posed before the electorate, rather a battered and bemused Casanova past his prime. Mr Blairís ideology was still to help friends and save the world but neither seemed to appreciate it. He took a pasting at the hustings and it showed. So what next?

Long terms in office are killers. They leave their principals exhausted physically and exhausted ideologically. Whey-faced politicians trained to regard keeping power as the highest ambition run out of steam when winning becomes second nature. The Conservative Government of 1951-64 had to refresh itself with four prime ministers (Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home). Lady Thatcherís third term ended in tears three years later. In her radicalism she overreached herself. In her self-confidence she left her political flank uncovered.

Lady Thatcherís second term was initially as lacklustre and crisis-prone as has been Mr Blairís. It was beset by strikes, bombs and Westland. Lord Ridley dubbed it ďthe years the locusts ateĒ, the wasted years. Mr Blair is known to feel the same of his entire second term. The difference is that Lady Thatcher galvanised herself after the minersí strike in 1985 and hurled herself into public-sector reform. By her third election in 1987 she was up and running. Her manifesto bristled with upheavals to public utilities, the NHS, schools, universities, the courts and local government finance. She delivered on them all, and crippled herself in the process.

In comparison, Mr Blairís new programme might be that of a 1980s management consultancy. Labourís new Jerusalem is a miasma of top-down targetry, refined delivery matrices and executive re-engineering. The Prime Minister frantically pulls the levers of power and cannot understand why nothing responds. For all his years in office, he still does not understand how British government works. If he did he would not treat its procedures with such disdain, or find such high levels of public dissatisfaction with services. To be fair, the Tory manifesto offered little different, another sign of Thatcherism entrenched. But the Tories were flaccid out of despair. Labour is flaccid out of empty-headedness.

Mr Blair patently lacks the energy and attention to detail of his mentor. In 1987 she knew exactly what she still had to do. Mr Blair in 2005 has no more idea where he is going than do the rest of us. Where Lady Thatcher was a serious radical with much to be radical about, to wit socialism, Mr Blair is a conservative with something to conserve, Thatcherism. But he did not invent it. Small wonder he has come to show that occupational craving of long-serving prime ministers, a monument in the pages of history.

It was in the search for such a monument, easily trumpeted and unpolluted by domestic politics, that Mr Blair tagged along with George Bushís rush to war in Iraq. It was in war, he knew, that Lady Thatcher found the rhythm and voice of her leadership. But she chose the right war, a quick, just, winnable war in the Falklands. More to the point, she put it to good purpose at home, building political support for the goal of every modern prime minister, an efficient public sector.

In Kosovo and even in Afghanistan Mr Blair could claim to have chosen wars well. Iraq went too far. Downing Street flew too close to the White House sun and melted its wings. All the spin of Baghdad cannot conceal what the American chiefs of staff admitted last week, that Iraq is not getting any better, it is getting worse. Mr Blairís memorial is one of sand and blood. He has to get out of Iraq long before he gets out of Downing Street.

The one political sensation of the election has been Mr Blairís public acceptance of Gordon Brown as his successor. What he feels he can no longer block, by dismissing Mr Brown, he may as well accept with good grace. For the first time in many years, the Prime Minister seems resigned to his rival as both legatee and executor. He may even find in a Brown succession a sort of apotheosis. The Chancellor remains a politician strangely untested by adversity. To be followed by John Major did Lady Thatcherís reputation no harm. Both may be left crying in the wilderness: after me the deluge.

To go with dignity at a time of his choosing could be Mr Blairís truest memorial. He has proved himself the master of political manoeuvre. He divined that Lady Thatcherís reforms must indeed be preserved not reversed. He meticulously deferred to her most sacred lobbies, to motorists, retailers, drinkers, air travellers, private home-owners and the celestial horde of consultants and bureaucrats who have done well out of ďBlatcherismĒ. It worked. With such a nobly bourgeois objective in mind, Mr Blair deployed the most bourgeois of weapons, a plausible and engaging manner.

Mr Blairís talent to persuade may have vanished into hot air. He has not lost his talent to charm.