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The madness of King Tony


 


 
HE DELIBERATELY manipulated the system to get what he wanted. He cultivated public confidence through the House of Commons to get his way. Politically, he regarded himself as highly innovative, though that's not quite how the history books may see it. Against advice, he refused to accept that America was an unworthy cause. Most seriously, he suffered from apparent bouts of intermittent insanity. The parallels between King George III and Tony Blair are getting awfully uncomfortable.

Given the constitutional detritus still floating around parliament from last week's reshuffle, the way he continues to dominate at the dispatch box, the emphasis he's privately said to put on ensuring that his premiership gets a decent spin from the historians, and his strange friendship with George W Bush, it seems as though Blair -- as dictatorial monarch rather than elected prime minister -- is lining himself up for a predictable drama and The Madness Of King Tony seems a not unreasonable title.

After the previous week's botched reshuffle left the government having to deal with more questions on canine breakfasts than Battersea Dogs Home, the criticism did not let up last week. Lord Wilson, Blair's Cabinet secretary from 1998 to 2002 (and the very model of diplomacy) tried as best he could to restrain himself from mounting an attack. But he couldn't quite manage it. ''The exercise of great power on constitutional matters should be done in a way that doesn't create too much shock.'' Translation: ''My god, what a cock-up.''

Wilson added: ''Many of us will think the right thing was done, it's the way it was done that may be the issue.'' Translation: ''What in hell's name were you all thinking about.''

Equally, Lord Armstrong -- Cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher -- said: ''If the prime minister [Thatcher] had had this sort of change in her sights, she would certainly have talked about it, she would certainly have asked what she would do and what I would need to do to give effect to it.''

Blair, without consultation, chose his summer reshuffle to abolish the office of the Lord Chancellor, axe both the Scottish and Welsh offices, and invent the new Constitutional Affairs Department putting his pal and former flatmate, Lord Charlie Falconer, at its head.

That none of this went to plan, cobbled together with parliamentary Elastoplast as it was -- and will now be the subject of wide ''consultation'' only after the decision has been taken -- puts both Wilson and Armstrong's comment into perspective.

Just as the young George III had Lord Bute as his tutor, so Blair is said to have Lord Irvine as his. Bute is sometimes recognised as the individual who persuaded the young prince that politics was ultimately corrupt and that reform, reform, reform was urgently needed. When George eventually became monarch, Bute was promoted (first into the Cabinet and then as prime minister) just as Blair promoted Irvine and subsequently Falconer.

But while the young Hanoverian king may have ditched Bute and found a bit of interesting independence, where is the court of advisers around Blair that is supposed to prevent him from failing to think things through? Where is the political support group that might catch the first signs of political insanity?

In the days leading up to the reshuffle and the chaos that followed, Blair was looking shaky anyway. There was the euro issue to be dealt with, there was President Chirac in France to be re-befriended. And key members of his team were off elsewhere, notably Pat McFadden, Blair's political secretary (who may have helped prevent the debacle over the Scotland Office).

A month earlier some in Cabinet got angry that there was to be no consultation on the euro. Gordon Brown was both judge and jury. So Blair gave them a period of consultation. Then Brown announced what he would have announced anyway. Then comes the madness. The decision is a no, but it is presented with the fanfare of a yes. One Whitehall adviser said: ''In retrospect that too could have been better handled. The Tony And Gordon Show in Downing Street was rather an ill-prepared production.''

Although Blair may sometimes be swamped in chaos, this seems to happen in between intervals of lucidity. The problem is, how do you tell the difference?

Clare Short, the former Cabinet minister responsible for international development, talked of one such period last week in front of the Commons inquiry looking into the government's presentation of intelligence in the run-up to the second Iraq war. While Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, gave Blair the diagnostic benefit of the doubt, mentioning good faith, burning sincerity and conviction, Short ripped in with a scalpel. She said Blair and President Bush decided in summer 2002 that there should be war with Saddam's Iraq, and the conflict should begin early this year. Which it did.

Short said the planned timetable led to the threat from Saddam being exaggerated: false links with al-Qaeda talked up; a UN resolution abandoned; blame wrongly put on France. Short described the ''series of half truths, exaggerations and reassurances that weren't the case'' as ''honourable deception''.

For the political historian (and the psychiatrist) the question is the same. Why did Blair risk such tactics? Why, as is alleged, did he feel the need to almost pathologically lie to his party, the Commons, his Cabinet and the country (not necessarily in that order) over the threat from still-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?

If he had instead trusted his position of authority with Bush, yet sided with his European allies and challenged Bush to deliver an alternative strategy to deal with Iraq, his position politically would have now been stronger. So why did Blair fall into an acute episode of deception: why did he, as Cook asserts, believe intelligence material should be carefully selected to back up the case for a war, rather than use intelligence as a basis for assessing whether Saddam was a threat or not?

George III was furious when his parliament refused to continue the war with the former American colony. He simply would not accept the facts presented before him following the defeat at Yorktown in 1781, that the struggle was over. Political games were still being played by George long after the argument was lost.

Blair instead seems to have avoided anyone else being allowed to influence the big decisions. Now even when the so-called facts are being questioned, he refuses to accept there is a problem. His solution? WMD will be found. One backbench critic (who specifically asked not to be named) said: ''There is real unease here. Over WMD the unease is well documented. Downing Street knows the problem and simply hopes time and significant discoveries inside Iraq by US-led inspectors will ease the pain. It won't.

'Unease is being felt in other places. Tony is now not just the leader of the Labour Party -- he believes he is a leader beyond question, beyond challenge. And until the party begin to question and begins to challenge, they will get the leader they deserve and at the moment they deserve Tony Blair.''

If Blair's political grandeur is now becoming well documented, his delusions of persecution seemed less so, at least until last week. In front of an audience of Fabians, Blair effortlessly combined his own political delusions and political sense of persecution into a worrying concoction of political paranoia.

He wanted, he said, to remind everyone of how unrewarded Clement Attlee's 1945 administration was -- even by the New Statesman as late as 1954. On August 2 this year, New Labour will have been in power longer than Attlee. It was as if he was saying ''can you believe that?''

Halfway through his second term, Blair said ''the left's laudable restlessness'' was asking had the project delivered? Was Blair radical enough? To explain why there was still work ahead for New Labour, Blair pointed to 'Britain's progressive deficit': in essence, the country Blair inherited from the Tories was a wasteland of failed social democratic non-achievement, under-investment, hereditary privilege everywhere, run-down public services . He said he had set out a 'modern agenda' that was now dealing with the shortfall.

And there was a warning for those who might yet get in his way while he deals with the remnants of the shortfall: 'What we are trying to do, the core of the second term, is to rebuild the public realm and re-energise public services.' And the scope of the achievement ahead was still going to be 'big, radical' and required fundamental, systematic change.

The message for the disbelievers is that extending public choice will continue (still a worry for Labour's left) because Blair thinks 'putting the user first, giving them choice is not a Tory concept'.

And the prime minister told his audience he was more, not less, optimistic about the future. If this was another episode of intermittent madness it was because Blair seems unable to comprehend that his diktat isn't working. 'The defeatist, the pessimists, the cynics,' as he told the Fabians, are no longer just the Conservatives. Instead Blair's dictatorship is creating a new tier of disbelievers.

The current disbeliever-in-chief, who nominated himself last week with his own version of a dog's breakfast, is Peter Hain. The new leader of the house and part-time Welsh secretary, initially seemed pleased that he had brought the issue of Labour's renewed need for a wealth tax back into public debate. Was there not a dilemma over how to pay for Blair's public-service choice without invoking wrath by mentioning taxing the rich more? Lieutenant Hain, perhaps taking his cue from General Blair, thought a route-one delivery would kick-start a needed debate. Instead it was Hain who was kicked by Downing Street for thinking out loud. Within 12 hours he relocked the Pandora's box of wealth tax, almost saying 'oops, sorry, this is none of my business'. However, in a different, more conspiratorial, reading of Hain's misadventure, there lies the prospect that he was laying down his own claim to a leadership under siege. If Blair was more in control, would this kind of political break for the borders of policy be even contemplated?

In March this year, The Times columnist Matthew Paris said he would accept the charge of discourtesy, but not flippancy 'when I ask if Blair may now have become, in a serious sense of that word, unhinged'.

Paris asked -- well in advance of the reshuffle debacle -- if we are witnessing the madness of Tony Blair. Another respected political writer suggested all such comment be dismissed as 'the talk of the village'. He said: 'Even though people talk about Margaret Thatcher finally losing the plot, most can't recall exactly when or where her defining moment marking the end really came. Because as far as defining moments go, this isn't one of them. Outside Westminster, most people aren't taking any notice.'

But inside Westminster, inside the parliamentary party, they have taken notice. Around Blair there is an obvious diminution of his trusted court: and the potential 'natural' allies he may have won in a positive reshuffle are now part of the internal regiment of the uneasy.

Around President Blair the equivalent of the core White House staff are becoming more crucial to his successful reign. Out are Mandelson, Byers, and last week, Milburn. Left are a disgruntled and unpromoted Geoff Hoon, an in-limbo Pat Hewitt, with only Straw and Blunkett seemingly content with their lot.

George III suffered from factional instability in his later years, complicated by concern over his stability. But while ministerial crisis followed ministerial crisis, historians point not to royal frailty but to the king's intransigence.

Will the second half of Blair's second term be marked by similar problems? And will a third term -- as it did to Thatcher -- risk even more talk of defining moments? The Madness Of King Tony is not a clinical obstacle to successful government.

Paris is wrong, Blair is not yet unhinged, but at the moment he appears uncontrolled. As one former Treasury adviser put it: 'It will have to work two ways: Blair needs to be reminded that his power comes from the party. And the party need to remind themselves that just as they put Blair up there, so they can take him down. And for all I know that may be happening already.'