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The BBC's Carolyn Quinn
Profiles Tony Blair in Sedgefield
 real 56k

Friday, 16 February, 2001, 19:22 GMT
Tony Blair: Prime Minister

Andrew Marr

History is for historians. For today, it is extraordinarily difficult to assess Tony Blair.

To his admirers he is already one of the great prime ministers of modern times, the man who not only made Labour electable again, but who reshaped Britain through devolution and is on course, with wily long-sightedness, to put her irrevocably at the heart of Europe.


Mr Blair seems to enjoy the job as much as ever and has clearly toughened in office

Andrew Marr
To his critics, he is a shallow, plausible zero whose talent for theatrical self-promotion and platoon of courtiers took him into government, but who had little profound to say once there.

Between the caricatures there remains a passionate, enigmatic politician, still easily underestimated by his opponents, but with much of what he wants to achieve still ahead of him.

In private, he has expressed deep frustration about the slow pace of change and the difficulty of facing down Whitehall and Labour conservatism.

Plus and minus

He can, and does, list the achievements of his first term in office as economic stability, Scottish and Welsh devolution, a major push on the Northern Ireland peace process, prosecution of the Kosovo war, the introduction of a minimum wage, a million more jobs and better schools, particularly primary schools.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, with son Leo
Prime Minister Tony Blair, with son Leo
But he decided against an early euro referendum in his honeymoon period and the tight spending controls of Labour's first two years made later public disappointment about the state of railways and hospitals almost inevitable.

Mr Blair has always felt most at home with a small group of friends and his close family.

The surprise arrival of a fourth child, Leo, during his prime ministership, has only helped to keep him away from the clubbable atmosphere of Westminster or party glad-handing.


This has been an administration with its fair share of failures, and Mr Blair must take the blame for that

Andrew Marr
Once inside his Downing Street flat of an evening, the door closes and very few unplanned intrusions are allowed. This has probably helped him to keep sounding like an ordinary human being.

It may, however, have also allowed his eye to wander off policy problems which later ripped into his reputation for shrewdness

Tolerant electorate

Ken Livingstone's victory in the London mayoral race, the Mandelson and Ecclestone affairs, the fuel tax revolt, the 75p increase in the basic state pension, felt by many to be insulting, and the tortuous story of the Dome all damaged him.

This has been an administration with its fair share of failures, and Mr Blair must take the blame for that.

But it has also been one which has, according to the polls, remained almost uncannily popular. Mr Blair can take much of the credit for that.

In good economic times, the passing crises and family feuds of the Blair government seem to have been regarded tolerantly by voters as salutary entertainments rather than political hammer-blows; he may have been forgiven episodes that would have destroyed a leader during a recession.

Certainly, after four years he is no longer 'Teflon Tony' and is as widely mocked as other prime ministers have been.

Toughened

At least some in the country, the foxhunting supporters, many farmers and opponents of the euro, actively hate him.

The fuel crisis was a damaging blow to the Labour Party
The fuel crisis was a damaging blow to the Labour Party
His natural reservoir of loyalty in the party is lower than it would have been for a more traditional Labour leader. And he has discovered that the press is fickle, however hard it is wooed.

All this said, Mr Blair seems to enjoy the job as much as ever and has clearly toughened in office.

His circle is more made up of civil servants and unelected New Labour loyalists than conventional politicians.

One of those who knows him well says: "The great thing Tony has learned is that he doesn't need to be loved. It is quite enough to be respected."

How much the electorate respect him is something he will learn quite soon.

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