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Australian Financial Review - May 21 2004

A spin too far

 Geoffrey Wheatcroft   |   Atlantic Monthly

As the new year opened, Tony Blair faced the greatest crisis he had yet known in what were then the nearly seven years he had been Britain's prime minister, or as leader of the Labour Party: he marks (celebrates might not be quite the word) the 10th anniversary of his party leadership on July 21. Sorrows came not in single spies but in battalions, and there was serious talk as to whether he would survive to the end of January.

A double-barrelled threat was posed by a critical vote in the House of Commons, on the seemingly esoteric but emblematic subject of university fees, and by the imminent publication of Lord Hutton's report on the events surrounding the death last year of David Kelly, part of a ferocious quarrel between Downing Street (and particularly Blair's disreputable former press officer Alastair Campbell, who picked the quarrel and then adroitly resigned) and the BBC, all because of Iraq. If that critical vote had been lost, and if the government had been censured by the Hutton report, it is hard to see how Blair could have remained in office. In the event, he did survive, but after two Pyrrhic victories. He won in the Commons, but his usual majority of more than 150 fell to a cliffhanging five, with 73 Labour MPs voting against him. Although the rebels disliked the measure in itself, they were also paying Blair back more generally for what he had done to their party - for that, and for bringing Britain into the war with Iraq. The previous March he had won another crucial parliamentary vote, directly on the war, but enjoyed the support of the Conservative opposition, with 139 of his own MPs voting against. This was the largest such parliamentary rebellion since the Home Rule controversy of 1886 - much larger than that which forced Neville Chamberlain's resignation, in May of 1940 - and it was a decisive rupture between Blair and the party he technically leads, even if in spirit he has never really belonged to it.

Then Hutton's report cleared Blair, but it was greeted with general derision, in which - for once in a way - journalists were joined by the public. Campbell repellently sneered at the BBC after what he thought was a great victory over it; days later polls found that three times as many British people continued to believe the BBC as believed the government. The whole bitter episode seemed to encapsulate the worst characteristics of Blair's rule: the obsession with process rather than policy, the cynical media manipulation, the ruthless brutality - and, with all that, a notable lack of success in achieving his objectives. Blair's intimates admit, and bemoan the fact, that the priceless commodity of trust has gone. That was true as early as last northern summer, when in one poll 64 per cent of voters said they didn't believe the Prime Minister.

By the fall Blair was looking tired and ill. He was very visibly changed from the fresh-faced 43-year-old who in May of 1997 became the youngest British prime minister in nearly two centuries. Now the burden seemed too much for him. But before long he appeared to recover, and his response this spring to his latest difficulties has been a renewed bout of frenetic activity. He went on his travels again, and not for the first time seemed to be everywhere but in London. In the space of a few days in March, Blair hit Belfast, to try to reinvigorate the moribund "peace process"; Madrid, to mourn the dead; Libya, for a handshake with Muammar Gaddafi (a gesture that marked the most astonishing of all his pragmatic alliances); and Brussels, in the distant hope of repairing his grievously damaged relations with other European leaders.

And yet with all this hyperactivity, and although his health had picked up, Blair seemed bereft of the almost uncanny aura that surrounded him when he came to power - an aura that had powerfully communicated itself across the Atlantic. From one angle his career has been brilliantly successful. Apart from the fact that he has now been prime minister for a longer unbroken term than any 20th-century predecessors save HH Asquith and Margaret Thatcher, Blair is, I think, the only British prime minister save Winston Churchill and Thatcher who could be considered genuinely famous in America, where he has excited something beyond mere affection or admiration. He has been lauded as "the Prime Minister of the United States"; or, in the writer Paul Berman's less facetious phrase, "the leader of the free world".

Still, the lustre has faded. In the too-oft-quoted words of the Tory politician Enoch Powell, "All political careers end in failure." Although that may be an exaggeration, it's true that many - perhaps most - political leaders disappoint their followers. In Blair's case the disillusionment has been very bitter, and the most telling voices are not of those, left or right, who always disliked him but of those who once deeply admired him. The proximate cause of this decline has been Blair's support for the American war in Iraq, which is the central moment in his story, seen from either side of the Atlantic or from any political perspective. It may also be what Goethe called the moment that, once lost, eternity will never give back. Whatever view is taken of the war, and wherever it may yet lead, one thing is plain: Blair bet his career on Iraq. He loyally followed Washington into a conflict that, as he well knew, was not wanted by most British people, by most Labour MPs or, in their hearts, by many of his cabinet colleagues.

And if the war is the defining moment of his career, that is not least because he is the one man on earth who could possibly have stopped it. His support for the Bush administration wasn't strictly necessary in military terms (as Donald Rumsfeld was unkind enough to point out at the time), or even in diplomatic terms. But practically speaking, it would have been far more difficult for Washington to embark on the war if Blair had publicly voiced the misgivings of the country he leads.

All this is an astonishing turn of events. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly eight years ago, I described Blair's story at a moment when he was an immensely confident and masterful leader of the opposition, not to say "prime minister in waiting", needing only the formal acclamation that must come with the next election, which the demoralised and enfeebled Tories were bound to lose (as they duly did). Having been chosen as Labour leader almost by default, if not by accident, Blair had transformed his party, and he went on to win not one but two general elections with huge parliamentary majorities.

The first was intensely dramatic. Three times over the past century there have been landslide victories in British general elections, when the whole mood of the country seemed to change, and the air people breathed felt different. In 1906 the Liberals swept away the Tories, who had been in office for more than 10 years; in 1945 the Tories were again swept out, this time by Labour, after having had a huge parliamentary majority for 14 years. And in May of 1997 a decisive victory by Blair's New Labour Party saw the Tories routed once more, after they had been in power for 18 years, reducing them to a rump of 165 MPs out of a total of 659.

One thing we didn't quite notice at the time was how illusory that new dawn - and that landslide - had been. Did the vote really mark a sea change in British politics, as so many seemed to think? The truth was that people were voting not for a positive change of direction, as they had in 1906 and 1945, but quite simply to throw the Tory rascals out.

The size of Blair's landslide was due to technical factors, and it was less impressive the closer it was examined. His party won 63 per cent of the seats with 44 per cent of the vote, something at which leaders in nations with proportional representation can only gape with envy. More ominous, if anyone had noticed, was that the number of those voting was substantially lower than five years earlier, and that the 13.5 million who had voted for Blair were actually fewer than those (14 million) who had voted in 1992 for John Major - a much-derided figure presiding over a fractious and divided party during an economic recession. How much of a triumph had Blair really enjoyed?

And who was he? For all the floodlight of publicity, we didn't really know Blair. Maybe we still don't. People who have spent time in his company will say that they have an unclear impression of his innermost self, the public even more so. That's partly because of the corrosive effect of modern politics - the constant spinning and shaping and sound-biting that can hollow out authentic human personality; and this is truer of Blair than of most other politicians, partly because of a theatrical temperament that makes sincerity difficult to distinguish from insincerity. His contemporaries at Fettes, the Edinburgh public school he attended, recall that he was neither academically nor athletically out of the ordinary, but that he was a brilliant actor: a friend likewise says, "He's part lawyer, part parson and part actor." By the time he became prime minister, he had crafted a public persona, and his appearances were largely calculated performances.

Although Blair turned himself into an impressive speaker - at party conferences, in parliament, on television - he was never a natural orator. And the rhetorical style he developed has not worn well, whether in his formal speeches, delivered in the verbless sentences of adman's English, or in his seemingly impromptu remarks. On the day Princess Diana died, he solemnly said that "she was the People's Princess", a phrase that (whatever it may mean) Campbell is said to have borrowed from the overwrought columnist Julie Burchill. In this mode, Blair sometimes seems to have no sense at all of the ridiculous. Arriving in Ulster in March of 1998 for the critical meetings that led to the Belfast agreement, he told the world, "This is no time for sound bites. I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders!" There was barely a pause between the two sentences.

What with his party's amorphous platform, it wasn't easy to see where Blair would take domestic politics; but then, it was harder still to foresee how much of his time would be devoted to foreign affairs, to say nothing of making war. In six years British forces have been in action in Iraq (the air strikes of 1998), Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and again in Iraq by land, air and sea - a record for any prime minister in modern times. War has overshadowed everything else Blair has done.

At home his government has a number of real and even profound achievements to its credit. It's unlucky - though both ironic and poetic justice for a government so obsessed with presentation and publicity - that the best of them have been hidden from view and will bear fruit only in years to come: a steady alleviation of child poverty and a marked improvement in teaching for young children (if not much as yet in secondary or university education).

More visibly, alas, the years of the Blair government have been punctuated by scandals. Unlike those of the preceding Tories, they haven't usually concerned individual financial corruption (as far as sex scandals go, honours are pretty much even between the parties). Most of the New Labour scandals have been unsightly symptoms of that cancer of modern politics, fundraising. The Ecclestone affair, which occurred only months after Blair became prime minister, led him to say, "I would never do anything to harm the country, or anything improper. I think most people who have dealt with me think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy." This was after it had become known that Bernie Ecclestone, the maestro of Formula One motor racing, had made a large donation to Labour, and that the new government had then exempted Formula One from an intended ban on cigarette sponsorship. Most of the public thought that "straight" was not quite the word.

If asked to explain himself, Blair says that religion is the key to him; this could be even truer than he knows. He had no formal religious upbringing, but he became a believing and practising Christian at Oxford. His piety distinguishes him not only from most of his compatriots but also from most British politicians: it's a curiosity of our history that only a minority of 20th-century prime ministers originally belonged to the Church of England and that only a minority have grown up as Christians in any serious sense. "If you really want to understand what I'm all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray," Blair once said. "It's all there." Macmurray was an academic theologian and philosopher who died in 1976, at 85. From him Blair learned, he says, that individuals prosper in strong, supportive communities. Few read Macmurray now, but he is a more interesting writer than that somewhat unoriginal insight suggests. George Orwell was fascinated by Macmurray, and repelled. He called Macmurray a "decayed liberal" who "can accept Russian Communism almost without reservations", and elsewhere wrote, "Macmurray is saying that Hitler is right."

To associate Blair with that would be grossly unfair, although there is a strongly authoritarian strain in his emphasis on communal duty and the collective. Margaret Thatcher was much abused for saying that "there is no such thing as society", when all she meant, in her finger-wagging way, was that individual men and women and their families are a concrete reality, whereas "society" is an abstraction too often used to justify another reality, state power. Though scarcely more of a socialist than she, Blair lacks Mrs T's healthy, homespun distrust of the state. He has a very low conception of individual freedom - a point he made all too clear in one speech during which he denounced the forces that stood in his way, among them "libertarian nonsense".

Maybe the truth is that Blair, though quick and lucid, is in no real sense an intellectual. Clearly Blair is a smart operator, but how intelligent is he? Plenty of people who know him more or less well wonder about that. Barbara Cassani, an American, is in charge of the British bid to stage the 2012 Olympics in London. She was reported as saying, after having dined with Blair, "To be frank, he wasn't that bright ... [He] has this ability to make it seem as if he cares, but he didn't seem particularly knowledgeable about anything." Although Cassani has angrily denied the words, she was only seconding what was earlier said by the novelist Doris Lessing: "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true.

I think he's not very bright in some ways." In an odd fashion, Blair himself almost confirms this. He once said, "When I was young, I paid more regard to intellect than judgement. As I've got older, I pay more regard to judgement than to intellect", which sounds nice, in a cracker-barrel way, until you stop to wonder what the difference between judgement and intellect actually is. Maybe the best thing to say is that his disposition is intuitive rather than analytical.

All of this connects with another characteristic. Blair evinces strong morality in principle but a tendency towards notably amoral behaviour in practice. "Far from lacking conviction, [Blair] has almost too much, particularly when dealing with the world beyond Britain," said Roy Jenkins, cofounder of the Social Democrats, not long before he died, with a touch of genial patronisation (and self-parody). "He is a little too Manichaean for my perhaps now jaded taste, seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white." Blair is not only Manichaean, he is Antinomian. The quaint 16th-century heretics who took that name believed that "to the pure all things are pure", so if you were of the elect, you could eat, drink and merrily fornicate in the certainty of salvation.

Very often Blair is like that - not in the eating and so forth, but in his belief that his inner virtue justifies whatever means he chooses to employ. Few prime ministers have ever been more sincere in their piety and few have been capable of greater deviousness or even unscrupulousness. Richard Desmond is an entrepreneur who owns the Daily Express, a once famous national newspaper, but whose fortune was made in what is sometimes called adult entertainment, which is to say pornography. The flavour of the television channels he operates may be judged from the titles of the magazines he has owned, which include The Very Best of Mega Boobs, Mothers-in-Law (yes, really) and Asian Babes. Blair is not only a doting father and a devout Christian; he used to keep a file of clippings labelled "Moral chaos". The fact that he has more than once entertained Desmond at Downing Street is an extreme illustration of "To the pure all things are pure". That Antinomian tendency leads further towards Blair's current travails. His understandable if sometimes morbid concern with communication - and what politician does not want to communicate with the populace? - has turned into its own justification. The means become the ends, the medium the message; Blair's politics, as Wagner unkindly said of Meyerbeer's music, is all effects and no causes. And yet by an absurd paradox, even though the members of Blair's inner court are rightly associated with media manipulation, they have been very bad at it. For all Campbell's reputation as a master of the black arts of spinning and news management, his record was a long series of presentational disasters and news-management foul-ups.

In the matter of Hutton, the whole miserable business began when Andrew Gilligan, a BBC reporter, said on the radio (far too early in the morning for most people to have heard it) that the government had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Although clumsily expressed, this was in itself an elementary statement of fact, as nobody at all except Blair now denies. Campbell went ballistic (the phrase is more than usually apt). He began a vendetta against the BBC, and determined to "out" the official who had spoken to Gilligan. Although David Kelly, Gilligan's source, was subsequently smeared by Downing Street as a "Walter Mitty" figure, he was in truth an eminent government scientist working on WMD (and, in a bitter irony, a man who believed that the war on Iraq was justified). Unable to stand the pressure, Kelly killed himself. Hutton, a senior judge, heard from a multitude of witnesses in public before coming to what most people saw as the perverse conclusion that Downing Street was blameless.

And the consequence? What everyone now remembers isn't Lord Hutton's report, or the small inaccuracies in the charges against the government, but the fact that we were all misled over claims of WMD, and the brutal way Downing Street had outed Kelly in order, as Campbell so elegantly said, to "fuck Gilligan".

Politicians are meant to be ruthless when necessary and are admired for it. Sometimes they are also "economical with the truth", or make use of what Kipling called "The truthful, well-weighed answer/That tells the blacker lie", or, in wartime, rightly employ the ruse de guerre, or tactical deceit. But Blair gave new meaning to ruse de guerre with his elaborate campaign of disinformation about Iraq, designed not to mislead the enemy about the conduct of the war but to mislead his own people about its origins.

With all his burning conviction of righteousness, Blair has repeatedly found it difficult to avow what he was really doing and why. Even during the period from July of 1994 to May of 1997, when he was the leader of the opposition, he couldn't quite tell Labour just how far he had moved from everything that the party had stood for over the best part of a hundred years, as the political voice of the organised working class, and as the proponent of managerial socialism.

Most of all, he never publicly admitted what he had learned from the 1992 election. That was an election that Labour had plausibly expected to win. The Tories looked tired and fractious after 13 years in office, having gotten rid of Thatcher in a panic in November of 1990. Since then the prime minister had been John Major, of whom Enoch Powell once said to me, "I simply find myself asking, Does he really exist?" And yet the Tories won the 1992 election, taking 65 more seats than Labour. Labour had no excuses, either. The party had shed its left-wing thrall of the 1980s; it was led by the affable Neil Kinnock; and the third-party vote, which had previously been blamed for harming the Labour Party, had dropped. What had gone wrong?

For Blair there was no question.

He was unique, I think, as the one Labour MP who recognised before the election that his party was going to lose and said so: naturally not in public but to trusted friends. In his view, the culprit was not Kinnock but John Smith, Labour's economic spokesman, who had cheerfully proposed higher income taxes before the election. From that moment Blair resolved that no party he led would ever be associated with high direct taxes. What Smith also taught Blair, more broadly, was a political version of the Yiddish proverb "If you tell the truth, you get hit on the head". And so, however tough he seemed to be, Blair never quite levelled with his party and said, "Look, we live at the end of ideology; all the isms are wasms, and in particular socialism is stone dead. I want to make this a better and fairer country, but in a purely pragmatic way. My job is to make sure that government goes on, and to make small incremental improvements." This inability to be completely honest became a habit.

Whatever ruses Blair has adopted have come all too naturally to him. At one point when the WMD issue was blowing up in the Prime Minister's face (if nonexistent weapons can be said to blow up), John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, confronted the unruly MPs from his party, telling them vehemently, "The Prime Minister does not lie."

But he does. Or, at least, he has repeatedly said things that were not the case, often enough to suggest that he has genuine difficulty with the concept of objective truth. Some of his lies are trivial. Politicians like to add colour and glamour to their resumes, and Blair was simply doing that when he claimed that as a boy he had been a stowaway on a plane bound for the Bahamas (for which there was no independent evidence), and had watched Jackie Milburn playing soccer for Newcastle (he would have been too young). It was much more alarming when Blair told a television interviewer that he had voted to ban fox hunting. The point was not the rights and wrongs of that highly contentious and emotive issue; it was that at the time the Prime Minister - or rather, the Member for Sedgefield - had never voted in the Commons on the matter one way or another.

This tendency to embroider, to persuade, and then to forget has repeatedly misled others and placed them in false positions. Blair claims to have learned from Bill Clinton, and in this regard he is a true pupil. When a politician takes a particular line, let's say by insisting that he did not have sexual relations with "that woman"; when he expects his colleagues to toe the same line and aver publicly that they believe him; when he then changes his story and admits that he did after all have an "inappropriate" relationship - then those colleagues are, in the hallowed phrase of Irish politics, left with their arses hanging out the window (not a posture Madeleine Albright can have found very dignified). In Blair's case there is a long line of exposed posteriors.

These are foibles of personality, obliquely linked to Blair's instincts. Rather than the mere recognition of the end of ideology and the decay of class-based politics, his real political insight may have been something greater - something that, once again, he couldn't publicly explain or avow, but that he instinctively grasped more than almost any other contemporary leader. In 1851 a coup d'etat by the Frenchman who would call himself Napoleon III inspired Karl Marx's brilliant pasquinade "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte"; it also inspired a less well known reflection by another great writer. The coup "has physically depoliticised me", Charles Baudelaire wrote. "There are no more general ideas." And he added, ominously, "If I had voted, I could have voted only for myself." It turned out that there were plenty more general ideas around (and calamitous their consequences have often been), but those words have an amazingly prophetic ring in Blair's England, though not there alone.

During the 2001 election campaign I read something truly eerie. The prime minister wins election while preaching the virtues of wealth creation, the free market and a close alliance with the US. Above all, this leader's gift is to have "understood the collapse of traditional ideology and its replacement by the populist values of the mass media". But this wasn't by an English writer, on Blair; it was Umberto Eco's thoughts on the almost simultaneous election victory of Silvio Berlusconi.

But now consider the consequences of a depoliticised society in which traditional ideology has collapsed and voters more and more feel like Baudelaire. The British used to be among the most enthusiastic voters in any country. In the 1950 general election an astonishing 84 per cent of adult British citizens cast votes. Turnout remained well above 70 per cent until the end of the century, still 72 per cent in 1997. Then it plummeted. Although I was sure it was going to drop sharply in 2001, I had no inkling that it would reach 59 per cent. Blair was elected last time by 25 per cent of the electorate: a fact that might have given even him pause before he took his country into a controversial war. An explanation for the drop is not far from hand.

If a politician achieves dramatic electoral success by emptying politics of its content, then it's natural enough if the electorate takes the hint.

And then there was Iraq. The war remains absolutely crucial to Blair. With Iraq everything about Blair came together, not least his energy and bravery. Blair had often been accused of pandering to polls and focus groups; this time his courage could not be denied, even by those who thought it could have been directed at a better cause. But his failings surfaced as well: Iraq was the culmination of his Antinomian tendencies towards self-deception, misrepresentation and "constructive ambiguity" (that complacent phrase used of the Belfast agreement), all of which drove him to mislead his nation for what he believed was the greater good. His war was a spin too far.

There might have been good reasons for invading Iraq, but the reasons Blair gave could not have been good, because they weren't true. And he was tactically unable to tell the truth. By now some kind of consensus presumably exists about how and why the war began. Almost since the end of the inconclusive Gulf War of 1991 a politically and intellectually formidable group of Americans had wanted a war in order to destroy Saddam. They might have been right. Some of them had been publicly advocating it - to their credit; there are no dark secrets here - for seven years. When they came to power, with Bush, the story heated up. Planning for the war was under way starting with Bush's inauguration, in January of 2001, and 9/11 provided a pretext, rather than a genuine casus belli.

All of which is acutely relevant to Blair's position. Whereas Bush and his colleagues would scarcely bother to deny that they had long wanted to destroy Saddam, and that the purpose of the war was to effect regime change, Blair's entire case has been that the purpose of the war was not unseating Saddam as such but dealing with his weapons of mass destruction and the "serious and current" threat Iraq posed to British as well as US national interests, which became clear in the course of 2002. That is what he told the House of Commons in a powerful and chilling speech in September of that year, reinforced by the first dossier of supposed intelligence freshly garnered and analysed.

But this position was false. Blair signed on to the war certainly no later than April of 2002, when he visited Bush in Texas. Indeed, Christopher Meyer, who was the British ambassador in Washington at the time, recently said in Vanity Fair that Blair was in effect told by Bush about the coming war - "When we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq" - during a meeting only nine days after the attacks in September of 2001. Hence "the great over-arching fact about the war that Blair will never admit but cannot convincingly deny", as the late historian Hugo Young put it in one of his last, fierce, more-in-sorrow philippics, is that "he was committed to war months before he said he was". Not only was Blair's decision made long before he claims, but it was made by someone else, and for reasons other than those he has given.

Strangely enough, Blair himself has come near to admitting this, if in a roundabout way. Shortly before the Iraq war began, he talked to the journalist Peter Stothard, who recorded the essential points of Blair's rationale. Saddam was a brutal tyrant who might yet be a danger to international peace (which is beyond argument), but the more pressing point was that the American people, "still angered by the 11 September attacks, still sensing unfinished business from the first Gulf war, would support a war on Iraq". Although Blair knew that the British people "would not even begin to support a war unless they had a say in it through the United Nations", it was clear from what he knew that Bush would go to war in any case; and the clincher was that "it would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so".

That is why British forces went to war, without the passage of a second security council resolution, which Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney regarded as a foolish distraction but which Blair had well-nigh promised parliament; he was thus acting without the honest approval of most Labour MPs. Blair's logic may seem obscure (not "my country right or wrong" but "their country right or wrong"), and Americans should notice that its implications aren't very flattering: US power untrammelled by allies is dangerous to long-term world peace. However it is dressed up, Blair was admitting that he no longer had an independent foreign policy at all.

Even now Blair defends his decision with the circular argument that the war "was the right thing to do", and he insists that Iraq is a better place today. Even if that is true, it is not why he told his country that it was going to war. He sometimes comes close to using the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin's line (wittily paraphrased by the cartoonist Low): "If I hadn't told you I wouldn't bring you here, you wouldn't have come."

The liberal hawks who admire Blair give his game away. For the historian Michael Ignatieff, "The honest case for war was 'preventive' - to stop a tyrant with malignant intentions from acquiring lethal capabilities or transferring those capabilities to other enemies. The case we actually heard was 'pre-emptive' - to stop a tyrant who already possessed weapons and posed an imminent danger." Ignatieff added morosely, "The problem for my side is that if the honest case had been put - for a preventive as opposed to a pre-emptive war - the war would have been even more unpopular than it was." As the English like to say, quite so. And in Blair's case it's not just a matter of popularity: if he had made "the honest case for war", he would never have won his vote in the House of Commons and could not have taken his country to war at all.

From September of 2002, when he adumbrated the coming war, to March of 2003, when the invasion began, Blair and his government said a number of fascinating things, notably in what has come to be called the "dodgy dossier", a simply grotesque document that was meant to represent fresh evidence of WMD but that Campbell and his gang had in fact largely patched together from sources found on the internet, misprints and all. But two things in particular that Blair said were especially curious.

He claimed that he was doing everything he could to work for peace, at a time when it was perfectly obvious that he was doing everything he could to work for war. And, acutely conscious that he was being portrayed as an American stooge, he said that, if necessary, he himself would have urged the war on Washington. Leave aside the sheer implausibility of that claim. If it was true, why hadn't he? After all, Blair became prime minister only three months after Clinton's second inauguration, when Bush still had almost four more years in Austin. Why did he not advocate war - preventive or pre-emptive, as he chose - against Saddam then?

Whatever Iraq has done for Blair's international standing, it has been disastrous for his standing in his own country. A recent biography by Philip Stephens, of the Financial Times, written specifically for American readers, echoes Paul Berman's phrase in its title, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader. The weary British electorate might well respond, "It's all right for you ... but we didn't vote for a world leader. We voted for someone who'd make the bloody schools and hospitals and trains work." The British have had a long and fraught history as a great power at the heart of a vast empire; now they want a quiet life tending their own garden.

Not just tragic, Blair's domestic position is almost ludicrous. Ten years ago he won the leadership of his party by a characteristic manoeuvre, neutralising Gordon Brown, his one serious rival, over dinner at Granita, a restaurant in Islington that as a result has entered the topographical dictionary of English politics. What was concluded in "the Deal" has been the subject of dispute, and rancor, ever since. Blair clearly said that he would make Brown Chancellor of the Exchequer if and when he became prime minister, and he may have made a vague promise that Brown would succeed him one day.

All this, the conventional wisdom holds, showed Blair at his most guileful, and the conventional wisdom is wrong, as usual. The novelist and political commentator Robert Harris has pointed out that the Deal was the worst mistake Blair ever made. "What he should have said was: 'Look, Gordon, you want to be leader of the party, and so do I, so why don't we both stand? Why doesn't each of us pledge to respect the outcome of the ballot and work loyally for whoever wins?' If he had done that, he would have called Brown's bluff and established himself as master in his own house once and for all." Blair didn't do that, and apart from encouraging a rivalry that has festered ever since, he completely surrendered to Brown all control of the management of the economy.

Talking on a BBC discussion program in March, Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, inadvertently called Brown the "prime minister". While everyone guffawed, she blushingly corrected herself; from such slips Freud built a thesis. As far as domestic policy is concerned, her slip is true enough: weird though it is, Blair may be "the prime minister of the United States", but for the most important purposes Brown is the prime minister of Great Britain.

How far Blair recognises this is not easy to judge. Both in public and in private he seems sometimes to be retreating into denial. He must be one of the last British citizens who still think that the fabled WMD will yet turn up in Iraq, and he has refused to acknowledge the degree to which he misled parliament and country.

Nor has he grasped the degree to which his policy of engagement in Europe is in complete disarray. This was emphasised by the Spanish election in the wake of the Madrid bombings, which deposed his friend and fellow Iraq warrior Jose Maria Aznar and replaced him with a Socialist, ostensibly a political soul mate of Blair's but in reality hostile to him, and not only over the war. There is no prospect at all of adopting the euro in the immediate future, and Blair's other boast, of acting as a bridge between Europe and America, does not look convincing either.

None of this means that Blair is finished politically. He was and remains in many ways as accomplished a politician and tactician as his friend Clinton - and, for that matter, as his newer friend Bush, to whom he so nimbly transferred his allegiance, though that switch has presented difficulties. Members of the government have been told to observe a Trappist silence on the subject of November's election: if they want John Kerry to win, they must keep it to themselves. It's not at all clear that Blair would prefer the Democrat, such are the strange whirligigs of contemporary politics.

As to his own next election, next May or whenever it comes, Blair is still a clear favourite. He has outlasted three Tory leaders - John Major, William Hague and lain Duncan Smith - and does not seem too much troubled by the considerably more skilful Michael Howard, even though the opposition has been harrying the government to considerable effect over immigration and the planned constitution of the European Union.

If he does beat the Tories again, Blair will match Thatcher's feat, so far unique since the 1832 Reform Bill, of winning three consecutive parliamentary elections. But that could prove just another hollow victory. Most British people are discontented with the government, and yet they are mostly better off than they were seven years ago, and mostly contented with their own lives. They have been silently offered, in the famous phrase, private affluence and public squalor, and have silently accepted them. They are happy enough, but say that they neither trust nor admire the Prime Minister.

Lately Blair has taken to using several transatlantic phrases: just as his religion makes him far more at home in US politics, so he has borrowed from American jargon of the moment. The war was the right thing to do, and "history will be my judge"; we must draw a line, and move on. But in a democracy it's not history but voters who judge the leaders, and it is also voters who decide when to move on.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion and is working on the forthcoming The Strange Death of Tory England. A longer version of this article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. 2004 Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.