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We are at the fag end of the Blair project
By Janet Daley
(Filed: 25/06/2003)

Tony Blair is going to go. That is the word around Westminster. He is now, according to the latest opinion polls, a liability to his own party.

Alastair Campbell might take the rap for whatever mess there has been over the arguments for going to war in Iraq, but that will be a footnote. Agreeing to let Alastair appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is not so much an attempt to save the leadership as to see to it that the personal integrity of the Blair historical record is not besmirched.

Nor can Alastair simply be sacrificed to save Tony Blair, as some suggest, because Tony Blair cannot exist without him. Blairism is his creation. The Prime Minister, as we know him, is a creature of the Campbell political laboratory - the stupendously successful result of a cross-fertilised ideological implant, far superior to the early Kinnock model, which was contaminated in the test tube by the use of old genetic material.

In spirit, Mr Blair has already gone, though the official retirement might not come for some time. The detail of domestic policy had always struck him as a bore. But his final disillusionment with internal British politics probably began around the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, when the outside world came to seem a much more deserving setting for his moral vision.

I think it must have reached a point of no return when it became clear that the most critical piece of NHS reform in the Blair locker - the creation of foundation hospitals with real financial independence - would first be knackered by Gordon Brown, and then definitively polished off by the trade unions. It was grand, sweeping, cosmic transformation that excited the Blair imagination.

He was always more comfortable with abstract nouns, moral absolutes and wildly generalised rhetoric than with the tedious business of getting from A to B on the delivery of actual results. Now the abstractions have become emptier and the rhetoric more clearly disconnected from any recognisable reality. And, looming before him like a terrifying jump to a novice skier, is the prospect of a forced referendum on the European constitution.

Why not just walk away? And that is precisely what he will do. It's easy enough to follow the train of thought: leave it all to Gordon, since he wants it so badly - the infuriatingly unimprovable public services, the hopeless European stalemate, the bloody-minded resistance of the old vested interests to "modernisation".

Good luck to him if he thinks he can bring any sense to this backwater. I am the global saviour of western liberal values. I don't need this.

So when it happens - when he takes his leave of us with a damp-eyed, self-dramatising exit line - what will we think? Suddenly both he and Alastair will be gone. (They will certainly depart together because they are really two halves of the same political phenomenon.)

What will we make of the Blair period when it is over? We will look around us and ask: what did he do? What were the accomplishments, the really significant changes, the notable improvements in daily life that this, at one time, massively popular Government brought? What, in retrospect, was it all about?

What it has always been about has been removing the Tories from power and keeping them out. In that aim, it has been hugely, staggeringly successful.

We tend to forget how explicit this objective was. The Blair project - the "big tent" - was initially conceived, as much as anything, as a realignment of British party politics. It was consciously and unashamedly designed to create a permanent alliance between the Left-of-centre parties so as to make an electorally effective bloc against what threatened to be permanent Conservative rule.

The fatal "splitting" of the Left vote between Liberals and Labour was to be eliminated, so that the "anti-Tory majority" could break through and claim its rightful victory. It is a testament to the quite surreal demonisation of the Conservatives during this period that this plan could have been so brazenly touted.

I cannot recall a time in modern British political history when the permanent displacing of one mainstream party could be presented as the legitimate raison d'jtre of the other two. But there it is. Labour can still defend treating the Tories as a form of democratic pollution: that is how it defends its fascist technique of shouting down the leader of the electorally mandated opposition in Parliament.

Oddly enough, when we try to remember why this was - why the Tories became so reviled that Labour could plausibly relaunch itself on the sole premise of eliminating them from the scene - what swims into consciousness is the memory of a government that had lost the plot.

Besieged by splits within his own side and the resignations of key ministers, John Major seemed to be making shambolic policy changes forced on him by unforeseen calamities, often involving irreconcilable differences between members of the Cabinet or the refusal of significant tranches of his back benches to support him. Wait a minute. Does that description fit anything you can see at the moment?

But if Mr Blair's Government has reached the John Major phase, whatever happened to its Thatcher period? Mr Blair himself, perhaps more than most of his party, realised that it was not Thatcherism that brought the Tories into disrepute - Thatcherism was what New Labour had to plagiarise (sorry, incorporate) in order to be electable.

Thatcherism was the competent, effective, courageous, radical force for restructuring society that Blairism was to model itself on. Majorism was the cowardly, incoherent, self-cancelling fag end that almost succeeded in obliterating the memory of the earlier achievements.

But where are the brave victories and the accomplishments of the Blair era? What miracles did they perform in their heady early years? Did I miss something?