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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 20:30 GMT 21:30 UK
Blair at 50: Ask the experts
Tony Blair
Political experts Nick Jones and Iain Dale answered your questions.



Tony Blair celebrated his fiftieth birthday on 6 May.

But the British prime minister says he does not feel anything like that old.

In a recent magazine article, he said his advancing years have "hardened and toughened" and taught him to value good judgment over intellectual ability.

The Iraq war and revolts by Labour backbenchers have been the most testing times during his six years as prime minister.

Yet despite the frustrations and stresses of high office, he still regards being prime minister as a privilege.

You put your questions on Blair's legacy to our panel of political experts - author and former BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones, and Iain Dale, writer and founder of the political bookshop Politico's, in an interactive forum.


Transcript:

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum, I'm Susanna Reid. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is 50 today and celebrations are boosted by a newspaper poll which shows his personal popularity has risen following the Iraq war. But the poll in The Times newspaper also shows support for the Labour Party has fallen. The party also suffered a blow last week when it lost control of nearly a third of its councils in local elections. So how is Tony Blair doing? We've received many questions from you, both within the UK and abroad, and joining me to help answer some of them is the BBC's former political correspondent Nick Jones and a political commentator and owner of the bookshop Politico's, Iain Dale. Welcome to you both.

A number of questions, as I say, let's plunge in Nick first, a couple. One from Tim in the UK: "Tony Blair seems a refreshing, youthful and exciting prime minister, or at least that's how he seemed six years ago especially compared to his predecessors. Recently he's shown a more old fashioned right wing stance. Is it inevitable that politicians change their stance and lose their radical youthful idealism?" And he cites Tony Benn as someone who he believes hasn't.

Nick Jones:
Yes I think that a politician in office, in power, like a prime minister does tend to lose that youthful enthusiasm. I think the burden of being a prime minister does, I think, grind you down. Clearly we saw with Margaret Thatcher, another British prime minister who became very much a world figure, that even with her it began I think to grind her down in the sense that she lost a bit of her political judgement, she got Britain involved in the poll tax - that was the tax on every individual in the country. And you get the same feeling with Tony Blair, that although he's come out of the war against Iraq, as you rightly say, with a very high opinion poll rating, of course the prospects for his own party and for his government aren't perhaps as strong. He's got problems in the National Health Service, he's got problems in the schools, he's got problems on transport and getting Britain's railways running, so I think the burdens of office I think are weighing him down yes.

Newshost:
Iain, do you think there are signs that at 50 he is much less idealistic than when he arrived at Number 10?

Iain Dale:
I think inevitably anybody that gets into power loses a certain amount of idealism because I mean you can't do everything, you can't change everything all at once. I think Tony Blair's certainly found that out in the first few months of office. I remember he said, I think within the first year, I have the scars of public service reform on my back, meaning the civil servants had obstructed him every step of the way when he'd tried to do something. I'm not sure I quite agree with Nick on this because Margaret Thatcher actually got more radical, the longer she stayed in office her policies became more radical. She started off in a very quiet, slowly, slowly, catch your monkey kind of way, particularly on trade union reform, for example. Whereas some of her policies later, such as the poll tax and obviously it was an electoral disaster but that was a fairly radical policy. I don't see Tony Blair coming up with these radical policies like that.

Nick Jones:
I would agree there with Iain on that one point, I think that is the difference that I've noticed with Tony Blair. I agree with Iain that Margaret Thatcher did use her second election victory, which was a landslide of comparable terms to Tony Blair's second election victory, to be very radical. She took on the trade unions in Britain and beat them, she really took on the biggest trade union people in the whole of the country like the miners and the print workers and they beat them. And she began the privatisation of Britain's nationalised industries on something in which she led the world. So I would agree entirely with Iain.

Iain Dale:
If Tony Blair was willing to take on the public service unions then we might be seeing a very different prime minister.

Newshost:
What about foundation hospitals - is that not a sign of something radical and taking on the public health unions?

Nick Jones:
Well it certainly is a sign yes of determination to take them on because he believes that it's only by giving the foundation hospitals this total financial freedom to be able to pick and choose what they do to sell their services that, as you rightly say, that he can take on the public service unions. But it doesn't have that feel about it, the radical feel that the privatisation of the nationalised industries had. Because back in the mid '80s that was tremendous when a government began to break up and sell off the telecom, the gas, the electricity, the water - those were really momentous days.

Iain Dale:
And I think the difference is that Margaret Thatcher was actually slightly more populist than Tony Blair. Privatisation's a good example where she was carrying out a reform - like council house sales - which actually affected individual people. Now the reform of the health service, people sort of groan when you start talking about that and they start talking about privatisation of health, we don't like that, two tier health service, we don't like that. It's a very different kind of reform.

Newshost:
Let me just go back and to the questions but to continue the theme of that comparison with Margaret Thatcher. Matt Clayton describes himself as a Briton living in the USA and says: "Whether you agree with his position or not Tony Blair's set a great example of statesmanship recently on the international stage, for which he's rightly received much credit outside the United Kingdom. In this regard has he enhanced the profile of the UK in the world community more than anyone since Margaret Thatcher?" Iain.

Iain Dale:
I think on the world stage he has. I mean John Major had a sort of world role but not quite in the same way. Tony Blair took risks during the second Gulf war and I think he is reaping the dividends of that. And it's very difficult for the Conservatives now because they've seen the Prime Minister actually adopting a Conservative stance and they can't have any sort of clear blue water between him and them on that issue. So I mean Tony Blair is the most popular British politician in America since Margaret Thatcher and they all know who he is and it's actually an incredible feat for a foreign politician to get any name recognition in the United States at all. So most Conservatives think Tony Blair, on the war - and I emphasise only on the war - has played a blinder.

Nick Jones:
Yes and I would second entirely what Iain is saying. You see if you look back to the Kosovo conflict, which was the real first international test of Tony Blair because there you see Clinton was then the President and they had agreed that they were going to bomb Serbia. Now Tony Blair was the only Western leader who was prepared to commit British troops on the ground in Serbia to take on President Milosevic. Now that was something that even the Americans weren't prepared to do. And that I think is the thing which differentiates Tony Blair from, say, John Major, in a sense that he was really prepared to go out ahead and he went out ahead you see on - after the attack on the World Trade Centre, Blair was the first world leader to say coherently we've got to take on world terrorism and he was saying it within an hour and a half of the first plane hitting the first tower.

Newshost:
On Iraq, he took that decision to back America at some potential great political risk, I mean he says that at some stage he thought he may lose his position. Let's ask you a couple of questions we've had here. Jesse from the USA makes a point, rather than asking a question: "From across the water all I can say, that a man whose greatest accomplishment to date was to provide an imperialist superpower with a diplomatic fig leave for its aggressive activities has very little to be proud of in his career." And Matthews from South Africa says: "In your honest opinion was the attack on Iraq one of Blair's greatest victories or worst mistakes?" At the moment it looks like an enormous victory.

Iain Dale:
I think it was his greatest victory over public opinion because there was no doubt that at the beginning of the war the majority of people in Britain were not very much in favour of it, maybe slightly undecided. But you ask people now whether they did the right thing and you'd get some 60-70% say yes he did. And even if people didn't actually agree with what he did, I think what he's done is emulated Margaret Thatcher - I mean we keep mentioning her - but he's emulated her and people say well we might not agree with him but we know what he stands for. Now that's true on world affairs, I don't think it's true on domestic affairs at all and I think he's got a lot of work to do if he's to persuade us that he's going to be a great domestic prime minister because I think so far he's been a failure as a domestic prime minister.

Nick Jones:
Another point about Tony Blair in the sense that if you ask the British people now - were we right to bomb Serbia? - the answer would come back just the same as I think it would come back over the question of Iraq, just the same as it would come back over whether or not we were right to attack Afghanistan. But of course part of this is due to the ability of Tony Blair to project himself and to convince the British public of the importance of this. Now if you ask those same questions you see elsewhere in Europe - in Germany or France - you wouldn't get a percentage in favour - that is the great difference. And I think what so strikes me about Tony Blair is that he can connect with the images that we are seeing on television all the time. So when he talks about Kosovo you see he justifies it now in historical terms and says - look you remember the refugees fleeing from President Milosevic, well we got them back into their homes, they're rebuilding their communities. He turns to Kabul, he says - look women can now walk around the streets of Kabul without being beaten. And you can almost begin to hear him saying the same thing about the Iraq war. He'll be talking about how the British troops walked around Basra with their berets on and how they brought peace.

Iain Dale: But I think a lot of people would like him to talk about how British people can walk around their own streets and feel safe. And if he doesn't turn his attention to domestic affairs I think he's going to have a terrible, terrible problem.

Newshost:
Indeed. Interestingly we haven't had that many questions about his domestic policies. He has made such an impact internationally. And let's just stay on the issue of Europe. Abdullaziz from the United States says: "Does Mr Blair realise he needs to find a remedy for the wounded relationship with Europe? If so how is he going to convince the Americans who expect only the British to be with them in "the long and hard work ahead" to reconstruct Iraq?" And just on a similar point Ken Hickmott from the USA: "Some Europeans say Great Britain owes far more allegiance to the USA and has more culturally in common with the USA than with the EU. And Europeans don't they have fair reason to say Britain has no intention of aligning itself with its European partners? And isn't the failure of Britain to adopt the euro evidence of this?" In terms of our relations with Europe what is Mr Blair's strategy, Nick?

Nick Jones:
Well I think it has got to be to get Britain into the euro. I think that is what he would like to deliver and that is one of his really big challenges. And I think that that's why he will seek re-election as prime minister, he will get a third term and that will try to be the point that he would want to be remembered on because he believes that Britain has got to be part of a wider Europe and that is to answer the point that was raised from the States - that is how he believes that if Britain is in there and can influence the rest of Europe he can then bring the rest of Europe to a closer relationship with the United States.

Iain Dale:
Which he singularly failed to do on Iraq of course.

Newshost:
And that would be a victory over public opinion as well and would be a radical policy.

Nick Jones:
It would be, it would be yes. But again of course forgetting - and it's very significant that you've not had the questions that are coming through on the domestic theme, you see the danger for Mr Blair is that he's losing touch with the problems at home - with the hospitals, with, as you say, safety of people on the streets, with transport, with education - those very things which could of course lead to him losing political power in Britain.

Iain Dale:
I think any prospect of a President Blair of Europe, as I think he had ambitions at one stage, have been firmly squashed by what's happened on Iraq, Germany and France stuck together on that and he singularly failed to bring them on board, into the alliance. And I think you're right Nick, there's no doubt that he does want Britain to join the euro. I don't understand why he wants that because he's effectively giving up control of our economy by doing that and I think the British people are going to be very difficult to persuade that that is a good idea. But in the end his premiership may fall on it because if he holds a referendum and loses it, it will be very difficult to see him being able to stay as prime minister.

Newshost: Let's have a look at the comparisons with the Conservative Party because at the moment they don't seem to find a leader who can match Tony Blair and we've talked, as I say, about the enormous comparisons between him and Margaret Thatcher. John Dean from England says: "Why has New Labour become a second Tory Party?" And Alan Ollier

Iain Dale:
Because they wanted to become electable that's why.

Newshost:
But the Conservative Party has found itself unelectable. Alan Ollier from the UK says: "The Conservative Party's in need of effective leadership. Why doesn't Mr Blair change his allegiance? He's obviously not a socialist and doesn't belong in the Labour Party. Keir Hardie must be turning in his grave." Iain.

Iain Dale:
Well these are easy statements to make, I mean the Conservative Party obviously has got an uphill task at the moment - they've only got a 166 MPs. But you can see that the fight back has started - the local election results for example. It doesn't matter that the media have become obsessed by what Crispin Blunt did, the fact of the matter is the Conservatives got 650 more councillors than they had the day before.

Newshost:
What issues were people voting on in the local elections, why did so many people vote Conservative and so few people vote Labour?

Iain Dale:
I think it's very difficult to actually ascertain a trend and say well it's one particular issue. In some places it will be local issues where a Conservative councillor's done well or a Labour council or Lib Dem council's performed poorly. But I think there were other things as well. I think people have started to look at Tony Blair and think well actually what has he delivered on public service reform? People don't actually trust Tony Blair, I don't think, he's got this sort of rather cheesy grin

Newshost:
But his personal popularity is huge.

Iain Dale:
Well I'm not so sure that I agree with that. I think he certainly had a sort of Baghdad bounce personally but I'm not sure how long that's going to continue because we have all of these other things that affect people's individual lives, which Iraq hasn't, I mean the health service affects people's lives, transport affects people's lives - if he doesn't deliver on those issues before the next Election I think people will look for an alternative. And it's interesting that the Conservatives have highlighted public service reform as an area to get votes in, it's not a traditional Conservative area. So it will be interesting to see what kind of votes they can have.

Nick Jones:
There is a lot of disenchantment within the Labour core vote, that is undoubtedly the case, which I think is partly the reflection as to why there wasn't the support for Labour in the local authority elections here.

Newshost:
Do you mean amongst grass root socialist Labour voters?

Nick Jones:
Well I think there are two, I think there's a degree of public disenchantment, which is what Iain reflected, but I think there is also disenchantment among the traditional Labour voters - people who work for the local authorities, people who work for the hospitals, people who work in the schools - they're not sure that the Labour policies are going to work and that they're delivering. That has led to a degree of disenchantment which is very worrying for the Labour Party. And of course that I think is what is so significant about this Conservative revival, that even though Iain Duncan Smith hasn't actually been winning points, there's a grass roots feeling with the Conservative Party that it's time the party revived itself and it's reviving itself despite its leader.

Iain Dale:
If you look at the kind of areas where the Conservatives won seats on Thursday, in Reading - now Reading, two Labour MPs, the first Conservative gains there for 10 years, they were winning seats in by-elections in Dagenham, again a strong Labour area.

Nick Jones:
Another one is Worcester where again where it's Labour members of parliament and that's the worrying factor you see, is that once the Conservatives regain the local authorities in these Labour held parliamentary constituencies, it's going to help revive the Conservative Party.

Iain Dale:
And I think the big fear for the Conservatives was that these votes would go to the Liberal Democrats, who try to sort of appear slightly more left wing than Labour but they're not, they're actually going from Labour straight across to Conservative.

Newshost:
We've got a question from Canada from Denault: "Is Blair a man of conviction or an opportunist?"

Iain Dale:
I think he's a bit of both. I think the Iraq war was certainly conviction, you could see it in his eyes. But I do think that he has been a very opportunistic politician, he's been a very lucky politician, he's been lucky in his opponents sometimes, it has to be said. So was Margaret Thatcher, she had a split opposition. Until fairly recently Blair's had a very weak opposition. So he's been a very lucky politician and lucky politicians are usually quite successful ones.

Nick Jones:
Yes I agree that he has primarily, I think, a conviction politician as demonstrated by the war. It became quite clear to me covering the conflicts - Kosovo, Afghanistan, now Iraq - that this is something that he really believes is something that he should do, that he leads a country which does have armed forces which are capable of acting as policemen for the world in these trouble spots and that we should use them. So I think there's no doubt that he's got that deep sense of conviction. I agree with you that he's opportunist on many issues but on some issues on the domestic front I think he does act out of conviction. For example, he is against a return to trade union power, something which Mrs Thatcher helped break down. There's no doubt about it that he doesn't want to see a return of trade union power. He's much more in favour of the private sector of deregulation - I think he does hold those as a point of principle and as a point of conviction.

Newshost:
Jane Howard from London asks a very simple question: "Do you think the Prime Minister enjoys his job?"

Iain Dale:
I think he loves his job and I think anybody in that position would. There are obviously black days when things go wrong and there's some scandal over which he's got no control or influence. But I think generally you can see that he loves his job. I think he's showing signs of age in a way that maybe other prime minister haven't and I think he probably needs a bit more relaxation than other prime ministers. I mean Margaret Thatcher famously only needed four hours sleep at night. I suspect that he's kept awake at night by Leo sometimes and that's led to his rather more haggard look but I mean it's an incredibly difficult job and we all sort of criticise the Blairs for their freebie holidays but the Prime Minister does actually need to have a proper break and to recharge the batteries and I think he's done the right thing in going on holiday, it's just a shame that it's been at our expense sometimes.

Nick Jones:
I mean to say he enjoys the Iraq war would be a ludicrous thing to say but I think he enjoys or gets a great deal of satisfaction from achievement and I think he does actually believe that he's achieving things, that he is actually doing something and achieving something and that if you look back, as I said, to the Kosovo conflict or the Afghanistan conflict he keeps referring back to them as though he's proud of his achievements. And I think the other thing that you have to understand about Tony Blair that he's the most disciplined person in front of camera. So people who've worked with him have always told me that the one thing to understand about him is that he agrees what he's going to do and say and he sticks to it and he has that tremendous self-discipline. And I think that's very important in a politician, that ability to be completely controlled because of course you don't often then get the real idea of what's going on inside him.

Iain Dale:
The one thing I don't think he enjoys is being in the House of Commons, he's not a House of Commons man. He goes to great lengths to avoid making set piece speeches in the Commons. He always dreads Prime Minister's questions and sometimes he fails at it. Now I think he has got slightly better at it in the last couple of years but certainly when William Hague was leader of the Conservative Party he was regularly beaten by Hague. Duncan Smith actually has been doing much better in recent months and has really nailed him a few times and he gets very frustrated, very angry, you can always see his lip curling because he's not in control of the situation.

Nick Jones:
No Blair would like to be in control of Prime Minister's questions but he can't always be in control. One of the most amusing things that I've discovered in my researches, writing about spin, is that whenever anybody has to say sorry for doing something and sorry is the technique that you can use because it helps the Prime Minister, they always happen on Tuesday and it's because the Prime Minister's going to be answering questions in the House of Commons on the Wednesday. So Peter Mandelson, the minister who resigned, he finally has to resign and say sorry on a Tuesday. Stephen Byers does the same. And of course Cherie Blair, his own wife, who got involved in a muddle over buying some flats, she finally says sorry on Tuesday and it means that Tony Blair then can go to the Commons on the Wednesday knowing that a line has been drawn under whatever the affair is and it's back to this need for him to have the control.

Newshost:
We've only got time for a fractionally few more questions on his future and the legacy he'll leave behind, there may be many more years of Tony Blair in Number 10 and indeed if you believe the bookies there will be. Rich from the US: "Ten years from now how will the British remember Tony Blair? On this side of the pond I can safely wager the memories will be fond ones." Alex Clark from Canada: "All political careers we're told end in failure. Blair has passed through some tough tests, how will he eventually move on? What are the greatest political threats he may face in the next couple of years?" John from the UK: "Will Blair be remembered for the triumph of style over substance?"

Iain Dale:
I think he'll be remembered for the war in Iraq, that will be his success. I think he'll be remembered as a high taxing, non-reforming prime minister who failed to get Britain into the euro - thank god I would say.

Nick Jones:
I definitely think he will be remembered for the stand that he's made on the international stage - that undoubtedly is true. I think he'd like to be remembered as the Prime Minister who took Britain into the euro, but as we both agree there's a lot of water that's got to go under a lot of bridges before we get there. Will he still be in power in 10 years time? I don't think he will. And will the failure - I think the failure will be on something like health or education or transport - one of those intractable British problems that he's failed to resolve, which will be the thing which - the bread and butter issue which people will say we've had enough of this and we don't like that and it'll be the bread and butter issues, the unexpected bread and butter issues that will unseat him, not his world performance.

Newshost:
Nick Jones and Iain Dale thank you very much indeed for joining me. I'm afraid that's all we've got time for. Thank you for all your many questions. From me Susanna Reid on the Prime Minister's 50th birthday and the rest of the BBC News interactive team here in London goodbye.




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