TONY Blair came eye-to-eye with an unfamiliar world last week, as he found himself in the unprecedented position of having to explain himself to his country.
The Prime Minister, apparently unable to see what all the fuss over his constitutional changes was about, faced the House of Commons with his now-trademark spectacles perched uneasily on his nose. Wonky. Even his most fundamental equipment had let him down - maybe his optician too.
This week, of all weeks in Blair’s six years as Prime Minister, they were in good company. The ‘loyal’ Blairite Alan Milburn had left him in the lurch, like Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers before him. His mentor Lord Irvine had stomped off into lucrative yet sulky retirement after being sacked. Blair’s remaining significant allies in the Cabinet, David Blunkett and Jack Straw, effectively vetoed key elements of his grand reorganisation of the way government works. His ‘friends’ in the European Union dismissed his new wheeze for handling asylum-seekers. The Americans continually frustrate his efforts to piece together a justification for war on Iraq based on Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). And Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, accepted as a messenger for the Prime Minister, a faithful supporter of Blair’s reforms so far and an outrider for those to come, managed to ricochet the government into an entire series of embarrassments, culminating in a frightening outburst that raised the Old Labour spectre of higher taxes.
It is not always your enemies who get you into trouble. But, particularly following the spectacular failure of Iain Duncan Smith to nail Blair in public over the shambolic reshuffle, they are just about clinging to the hope that it is not always your friends who get you out of it.
"We have lived too long with the certainty that however bad we got, the Tories would always be miles worse," one of the growing band of Labour ex-ministers populating the benches behind the Prime Minister warned ruefully last night. "I am sure - I know - that we made a lot of mistakes during the first few years in government, but got away with them.
"He won’t be able to do that any more. He has cocked it up."
This has been a year of landmarks for Tony Blair: his 50th birthday, the 20th anniversary of his arrival in the House of Commons, the fifth war to which he has committed British forces since coming to power. It is also almost certainly mid-term in his historic second term in power, the period in which all governments are at their most vulnerable to the damage wrought by opponents and self-inflicted wounds. A less obvious milestone, which had so far escaped most politicos and the watching public, is that Blair’s government is about to overtake the lauded administration of Clement Attlee, between 1945 and 1951, in terms of their time in office, if not the list of achievements accrued while there.
It is an occasion redolent with symbolism among his party. Blair, true to his pro-active spinning instincts, chose to use the looming landmark as the theme of his latest relaunch. He climbed on to the stage at the Old Vic theatre last week to remind the left-wing Fabian Society of how the greatest governments have to wait for the recognition they deserve.
"Today we see that great 1945 government as coming closest to building a New Jerusalem," Blair said. "Yet, immediately afterwards, it was routinely attacked on the Left for not trying hard enough to form a socialist state as a bulwark against capitalism."
The message, that not enough people appreciate the valuable work his own reforms, particularly in public services, are doing for the country, was unmistakable. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his attempt to come out fighting was hamstrung by the chaos gripping his administration from top to bottom. The relaunch, trailed by Downing Street as an aggressive counterattack reinforcing his determination to "transform" public services, lapsed into a self-justifying hollow restatement of earlier declarations.
Charlie Whelan, former spin-doctor to Chancellor Gordon Brown, recognised familiar signs of weakness, not strength, in Blair’s latest attempt to manoeuvre the agenda back his way.
"In [Labour’s] old Millbank building, we had one person whose sole job it was to count the number of Tory Party relaunches," Whelan said. "We reckoned that the more they had, the more likely it was that they would fall back in the polls.
"On such past evidence, Labour’s relaunch could be the beginning of the end for this Prime Minister."
It may, of course, be the end of the beginning, but Blair has much to make up to match a government that effected wholesale nationalisation of crucial elements of industry, the transport system and the Bank of England, the beginning of the dismantling of the British Empire and the birth of the welfare state.
Blair’s colleagues can so far list few genuinely ground-breaking changes beyond the minimum wage and Bank of England independence in their election leaflets. Attlee’s government, by common consent, ran out of steam by 1951, exhausted by the demands and achievements of six years in sole power and, for many of its leading figures, service during the wartime coalition.
Blair’s administration is beginning, suddenly, to look as jaded, yet without the list of achievements racked up by Attlee, which ultimately guaranteed his place in history. The New Labour government, convulsed by the continuing furore over Iraq and the European Union, the running sores of slow progress in improving schools and hospitals, and the fall-out from a farcical reshuffle, pales in comparison. Blair’s government today, ironically, most resembles that of his predecessor, John Major: buffeted, paralysed by the conflicting demands of party, Cabinet and voters - "in office but not in power", according to one of Major’s former Chancellors, Norman Lamont. In an aside that only a year ago would have seemed incredible, one minister conceded that: "Tony looks like a lame duck Prime Minister."
Peter Kilfoyle, a traditionalist Labour MP and former minister who has become one of Blair’s fiercest critics on the back benches, claims the Prime Minister has lost his grip on the fundamentals of his job as leader of the country and the party.
He said: "There is a period in any prime ministership where prime ministers look for a bigger stage, the international stage. That can be a big distraction.
"It is even more of a distraction when you are not of the tribe that you lead anyway. The difficulties within the party are those of somebody that is outside of what I would argue are the traditional values and beliefs and convictions which lend the coherence that is lacking in this particular government at the moment."
Westminster is once again aglow with recollections of the "whiff of decay" that accompanied the dying days of the Tory hegemony. Less hackneyed, more accurately, Blair is accused of presiding over a "fag-end" government, one that is rapidly running towards the end of its useful life. The year 2003 may yet prove to be the landmark year in which Blair began to lose his way.
For Labour peer Bernard Donoughue, a member of Blair’s first government and a former aide to Harold Wilson who has seen at close quarters one legendary leader hit the buffers, the decline is inevitable.
"Blair has had it easy in comparison to other Labour leaders because he has always had a huge majority, but what he has in common with Wilson and all prime ministers is that, after four, five, six years, they start to unravel," Lord Donoughue said.
"It is very difficult for governments to sustain their popularity when every decision they make upsets someone. It means they accumulate a lot of disappointed people and they also put a lot of p****d-off people on the back benches who begin to get sour and critical and really quite powerful."
While Blair was performing on the stage of the Old Vic last week, two of those senior colleagues relegated to the wilderness were doing their bit to undermine his attempted recovery. Robin Cook and Clare Short, who quit the Cabinet over the conflict in Iraq, raised further concerns over the decision to go to war, and in doing so further undermined the degree of trust in Blair.
There are another 60 former ministers now sharpening their knives on the back benches, waiting for their chance to pounce.
The reshuffle encapsulated many of the problems besetting Blair at the moment: rushed proposals hindered by poor planning and presentation, and, crucially, unrest within his own camp. Blair’s original grand plans, including a Ministry of Justice and Minister for Europe, were scuppered by the resignation of Milburn and the opposition of Blunkett and Straw. The result was constitutional chaos. But, with Milburn and his fellow members of the original Blairite Praetorian Guard gone, the Prime Minister can ill afford to upset those allies that remain.
Yet those friends can be more trouble than they are worth.
It was Hain who propelled the constitutional plans into tailspin by publicly announcing that the Welsh Office had survived, despite the doom-laden assertions of Downing Street, and later effectively declared that the British people could not be trusted to decide on the proposed European Constitution in a referendum.
But worse, much worse, was his outburst on taxation - in an excerpt that was later deleted from a speech in Wales - at one swoop questioning Labour’s hysterically maintained pledge not to raise taxes and threatening a fresh outbreak of internecine warfare with Brown.
Donoughue claimed the episode was symptomatic of a long-term loss of authority on the part of Blair. "Hain is becoming the Tony Benn of the Blair government," he said.
"He is openly appealing to the old Left, and in the process he is putting two fingers up to the Prime Minister. That suggests his respect and his authority is unravelling."
It may be too late to heal the wounds opened by Hain, or to prevent the wider decline of Blair’s authority, particularly with Brown, "the king over the water", waiting in the wings.
"The reshuffle was badly handled and presented very poorly, although much of the content was sound," said Glasgow Pollok MP Ian Davidson.
"The Prime Minister has been taking so many responsibilities, whether it’s the Middle East, managing America or remodelling Europe, that he has become distracted.
"None of this is irrevocable. If he were to introduce a greater willingness to seek consensus, throw a few advisers overboard, then he could lead a party united on reform. But it can’t be done from the top down."
It is a big demand, and one senior ex-minister said Blair had already endured the "catalyst" that would decide his fate.
He added: "I thought the war would be the catalyst, because he came out well from that and I thought he could turn things around. But now I think this reshuffle might prove the catalyst. It will be very difficult for him to get it back from here."
TONY Blair’s present troubles have been magnified by the fact that he has lost a series of close allies - the Blairite ‘Republican Guard’ - who protected him from rivals inside and outside the Cabinet.
PETER MANDELSON: Spotted the future leader when director of communications at the Labour Party and Blair was a young MP. Went on to create New Labour with Blair and Gordon Brown - but sided with Blair in the leadership battle. Rewarded with a central role in Blair’s first Cabinet, but was finally lost to the PM in 2001 after two resignations.
STEPHEN BYERS: Central figure in the Blairite north-east ‘mafia’. An effective communicator, he moved smoothly into the Cabinet but the wheels began to come off when he was embroiled in the Railtrack fiasco and after his spin-doctor’s e-mail that September 11 was a "good day to bury bad news". Never recovered.
ALAN MILBURN: Pugnacious former Leftie, increasingly seen as Blair’s most likely and preferred successor. His shock resignation leaves the Prime Minister genuinely bereft of a bruising fellow thinker willing to take on Brown in Cabinet.
ANJI HUNTER: Considered by many as Blair’s greatest loss, his old school friend was regarded as his ‘gate-keeper’ until she left for a lucrative industry post 18 months ago. Insiders claim she would never have allowed the chaos of the recent reshuffle