- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

LONDON.
Poof. Is it possible Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is about to go up in vapor?
The government that came to power in 1997 with the most lavish parliamentary majority in modern times (179 seats) is of a sudden battling high seas. That is what British commentators both left and right are saying these days. Frankly, upon landing here the other morning I was doubtful. In fact, I remain in doubt after days listening to conservatives chortle. Last night I even listened to a Laborite, who during the Blair government's early days worked in the party's national office, chortling. This chortler was then a socialist rigorist. He remains a socialist today, three years after Mr. Blair sanitized his party of any recognizable sign of socialism, vegetarianism, nudism, or any of the other zany isms that characterized Labor throughout the post-World War II period.
Mr. Blair and his spinners have even renamed the party New Labor. Yet there remain socialists, vegetarians and nudists out there who never accepted Mr. Blair's face-lift. As the cosmetic surgery he effected on his party is so similar to the cosmetic surgery Clinton-Gore effected on the Democratic Party Mr. Blair's sudden troubles are worth our pondering. In many ways his time of troubles is nonsensical, but so are Al Gore's.
Mr. Blair's political strength should be impregnable and his prospects sunny. His popularity at the polls remains high, though trending lower. The economy is sound with healthy growth, low inflation, and high employment. There is no threat of war. Problems in Northern Ireland persist but many anticipate peace in the near future. Still for two weeks the headlines have with increasing shrillness repeated the theme, "Not a Good Day for Tony Blair."
Now my agents tell me there is genuine fright at No. 10. As Matthew d'Ancona, the cool and informed columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, observes, "What is remarkable is how profound the Blairites themselves evidently believe the underlying crisis to be; one had only to look at the fatigue and worry etched in the prime minister's face last week to grasp that." In the Labor Party's ever-friendly Guardian, columnist Hugo Young talked of the "hot air" going out of "Blair's balloon" and his government's deviousness with statistics.
What got the heretofore formidable Mr. Blair government into so much trouble? Surely it is not the rising might of his opponents, the Tories? Their strength in Parliament remains feeble. Their leadership is only now getting itself together. No, New Labor, the party based on public relations, seems to be in trouble because of a sudden outbreak of bad public relations. The grumblers on Mr. Blair's left are now joined by discontented voters in the "floating middle" who supported him in the last election. They do not like what they hear about rising crime, insufficient funds for health and education, and his mostly public relations stands on politically correct initiatives, particularly teaching homosexuality in the schools. Nowadays, both here and in Britain, apparently sex has to be taught.
Then the country's growing uneasiness came to a boil when the smiling prime minister stepped before a celebrated group of middle-class women, the Women's Institute, and committed an enormous faux pas. Rather than dispense banalities about cancer research or educational advances, he, a la Bill Clinton, delivered a series of impertinent boasts about his political achievements. Profanation. The ladies publicly displayed their displeasure, to the press' amazement. Next he went to Germany and there made an amazing proposal, to wit, that publicly intoxicated persons be yanked by the ear over to the nearest ATM by alert cops to withdraw an on-the-spot fine without benefit of court appearance. The measure's severity and potential for corrupting the cops was highlighted when Britain's police officials shouted their admonitions. All this was bad, but a couple of weeks later when the prime minister's 16-year-old son was arrested for being soundly soused in public, things got even worse.
But all these setbacks are essentially only public relations setbacks. Why are people now suggesting that New Labor may go down in a dreadful defeat next year at the polls? The answer is because all Mr. Blair's achievements at least his most popular achievements have been only public relations achievements. The fright that is addling No. 10, it is said, exists because Mr. Blair is only a practitioner of "gesture politics." He believes in nothing, not socialism, not even nudism. That is why it was so easy for him to recast his party. Now that his public relations gestures are failing, he is doomed.
Frankly I find it difficult to believe Mr. Blair believes in nothing. Like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, he believes, I suspect, in many of the old left-wing bromides. The problem is he lacks the courage to promote these artifacts of yesteryear's politics. That is why he is now so terrified and performing so poorly in public. This explains our vice president's problems too.

R. Emmett Tyrrell is editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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