- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

Barely two years have passed, but it seems an impossibly long time ago that Joe Klein, dutifully tracking Tony Blair around the campaign trail, described New Labor's prime minister as "sleek as a shark if not nearly so vicious." It was an apt phrase at the time. Here was a ruthlessly efficient politician, cruising to victory at the polls, albeit with the help of an inept opposition. We grew used to thinking of Tony Blair as an all-powerful figure who was intent on creating a new British Establishment from the band of colleagues, admirers, and hangers-on known collectively as "Tony's cronies".
Things have looked very different these past weeks, of course. The opinion polls and the anti-war demonstrations tell their own bleak story. Tony Blair may still be the most popular man in Washington, but in his home country he has looked more and more isolated. Commentators who once admired his infallible instinct for gauging the public mood now shake their heads in mystification. Even those of us who are grateful for his stance on Iraq are puzzled. Like everyone else, we thought we knew what motivated this master of focus-group politics.
The truth, though, is that such confusion is nothing new. Tony Blair has been an enigma for years. That much was made clear in John Rentoul's elegant biography "Tony Blair: Prime Minister", published in 2001 as New Labor embarked on its second term. Read "The Grocer's Daughter," the first volume of John Campbell's ongoing biography of Margaret Thatcher, and it soon becomes clear that the Iron Lady's core beliefs were more or less fully-formed by the time she left the family corner shop and headed for Oxford.
Mr. Blair, on the other hand, seems in some respects an accidental premier who gave little serious thought to politics until he arrived among the dreaming spires. Early in his undergraduate phase he still appeared more interested in becoming the new Mick Jagger.
Mrs T had famously grown up in the shadow of a father who was a devout Methodist as well as a Conservative alderman. Mr. Blair's father, an atheist, had been a Communist in his youth before turning into a staunch Tory.
In adult life Mrs. Thatcher was conventionally lukewarm about religious matters. Mr. Blair, in contrast, seems to have grown more devout over the years, and there is even talk that he may one day follow his wife into the Catholic fold. Unlike George W. Bush, however, Mr. Blair rarely advertises his Christianity. (That makes a certain amount of sense: As Prince Charles has found to his cost, the English do tend to regard interest in religion as an early sign of mental instability.)
Ambiguities mount up. When Mr. Rentoul published an earlier version of his biography, back in 1995, he believed Mr. Blair had started his Labor career on the so-called "soft Left". Now it appears he was on the Right of the party all along.
Yes, he certainly was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, but that may just have been a mark of opportunism rather than conviction. To get ahead in those days, ambitious Labor activists had to wear all the right badges.
Does that leave us then, with a leader who is all things to all men? Not necessarily. Three years ago Mr. Rentoul concluded with the observation: "Blair is an Augustinian preacher-politician, always promising the virtue of clarity, but not yet." All the same, as he pointed out when I spoke to him this week, the one area where clarity has long been the rule is foreign policy. In Kosovo and in the early confrontations with Baghdad, Mr. Blair pursued an unwavering moral line. Part of the problem in the current debate on war, Mr. Rentoul suggested to me, is the media's short attention-span.
As he points out, it is easy to forget that all but 25 MPs voted in favor of launching air strikes against Iraq during the inspections crisis of 1998. (That was, incidentally, the first time since 1945 that a British prime minister had sought parliament's permission for military action.)
No one doubted Mr. Blair's judgment then.
What has changed is the domestic climate. With no sign of major improvements in the public services, and with the economy looking increasingly fragile, New Labor is very much on the defensive. Mr. Rentoul sees the antiwar protests as a reflection of that general dissatisfaction.
While he has no time for the much-publicized notion that Mr. Blair ever made a pact to hand power in mid-term to his rival, Gordon Brown ("That was never going to happen, and it's not going to happen now.") he makes no bones about the leader's vulnerability. New Labor will "tolerate" him as long as he has the look of a winner.
After all these years, his relationship with the party faithful ultimately remains a marriage of convenience.
"The whole point is that the Labour Party doesn't like Blair," Mr. Rentoul explains. "In fact, I'm struck by how few people in the country as a whole have ever liked him. It's very odd you go out and look for people who like him, and they're not there. Women tend to think he's smarmy; men think he's a geek. He's got no reserves of loyalty or enthusiasm to draw on.
"Iraq has been a more difficult call than he thought it would be. The depth of public opinion is quite surprising. There's the risk that even if it is a short, successful war people will still be unhappy with him."
If Mr. Blair stands firm, and if, as we all hope, the war ends in a quick victory, he should still be able to invite an extra-large contingent of well-wishers to his 50th birthday party in May. It is easy to forget that he is still at an age where most heavyweight political careers are about to take off. The next challenge, just over the horizon, is Europe. Having seen how France and Germany have behaved over the last few months, how will he be able to sustain his enthusiasm for the single currency?
As David Green, the head of the social policy think-tank Civitas, indicated when I spoke to him this month, the logic of Mr. Blair's UN stance points to his championing some form of Anglosphere alliance. How could that goal be reconciled with membership of a centralized Europe run by Jacques Chirac and his heirs?
The prime minister shows no sign of addressing that difficulty just yet. One challenge at a time, perhaps.
He has already surprised many nonbelievers. After watching him kiss babies and make stump speeches Joe Klein observed that Mr. Blair suffered from "a generational disease, a perennial callowness that seems to afflict those of us who were born in the years immediately after the Second World War … Perhaps it is the absence of great issues, great crises; perhaps it is simply the absence of suffering but baby-boom politicians, even in middle age, still seem like helium-filled dilettantes."
The dateline on that article was June 7, 2001. Another world. Like the rest of us, Tony Blair lives in a different era now.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.

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