The people’s clown

Boris Starling looks back on New Labour, and why BoJo’s swagger makes him Blair’s true heir

Blair

There’s a holy trinity of Generation X mid-90s nostalgia: Cool Britannia, football (almost) coming home, and the rise of New Labour. The BBC’s recent Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution may have gone light on the Gallaghers, Gazza and Geri, but it offered all that the middle-aged political aficionado could want. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are two men forever orbiting each other, unable to break their mutual gravitational pull, and though they were front and centre in the five hours of the documentary we didn’t see them together in the present day once, as if their interviews were separate therapy sessions rather than a mutual marriage counselling.

At the start of John Hughes’ classic teen movie The Breakfast Club, a voiceover says “you see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.” It was always easy to mark Blair and Brown as Cavalier and Roundhead, show pony and shire horse, style and substance, inveterate people-pleaser and principled truth-teller. But, as so often in politics, the easy interpretations are misleading. Both men were far more complex than those simplistic descriptions suggest, and of all the aperçus in those five hours, the most illuminating came from political strategist Matthew Taylor. “Gordon’s background involved preaching and Tony was a barrister. Gordon is never happier than [when] standing in front of an audience of true believers. Tony is never happier than [when] speaking to a sceptical jury, trying to convince them of something which they’re not entirely convinced of: speaking to the middle ground, speaking to those who weren’t traditional Labour supporters.”

And boy, was he good at it. To see Blair even now, almost a quarter of a century on from his accession, is to instantly recall the shock level of his peak charisma. As the unnamed narrator in Robert Harris’ The Ghost says of Adam Lang, a (very) thinly-disguised Blair: “he wasn’t a politician. He was a craze… (and) this was his genius: to refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance.” What a natural, effortless pro Blair was, and how perfectly he found the right words for every occasion, at least to start with: “a new dawn has broken, has it not?” as he worked the massed ranks of volunteers in Downing Street like a rock star high on the euphoria of goodwill and renewal; “the people’s princess” to a nation whose shock at Diana’s death was on the cusp of turning to anger; and “the hand of history on my shoulder” as Northern Ireland inched towards a peace deal which had for so long seemed inconceivable. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would have been proud of those.

But you could never have imagined Brown being so instinctive, and as much to the point neither could he. If Brown has mellowed, it’s not by any measurement visible to the naked eye. Even at this distance he clearly maintains that Blair was not just intellectually and politically inferior, but also that he sucked the teat of public support dry enough over his decade in power to leave Brown with the dregs and a losing electoral cause in 2010. Brown has never been one for the easy chuckle of bonhomie, at least in public, and pretty much every turn of this programme called to mind PG Wodehouse’s peerless dictum that “it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” Although Blair saw off four Tory leaders – John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – Brown caused him not just more problems than any of them, but more problems than all of them put together.

There has always been something of Amadeus about the two men, with Brown the Salieri figure seething in impotent fury at the gifts bestowed so bountifully on his rival. Blair was, of course, never a brat in the way that Peter Shaffer envisaged Mozart, but the disconnect remains. If not exactly master and apprentice – they became MPs at the same election, 1983 – Brown was definitely the senior figure for a long time, an intellectual force who made Blair seem insubstantial by comparison; but Blair’s natural charm was always going to tell once he rose high enough to be noticed by the public. It’s a storytelling trope as old as the hills: the friends who fall out, the allies who become enemies, the young pretender usurping both the old buck and the natural order.

This wasn’t a simple two-hander, however. The documentary’s undercard was full of heavyweights in their own right, each prompting a warm jolt of recognition on first appearance: Ed Balls, David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell, Anji Hunter, Peter Mandelson, Clare Short, Jack Straw. The implied contrast between them and the current cabinet was clear: here were men and women from a time when politics was for grown-ups rather than today’s chancers. Take this extract from a Guardian opinion piece, for example, discussing the prime minister’s “disdain for parliament, his command-and-control from Downing Street, his explicit relish in power at the centre, his wide-eyed insistence that, these days, there’s no other way to rule. If cabinet government is dead, it’s in part because cabinet ministers have seldom been more feeble. Few of the present lot can hack it as politicians who count. No modern government has contained ministers more puppet-like, more politically anaemic, more lacking in self-respect, or more cravenly submissive to the leader who has supplanted – in their minds as much as his – argument or belief with loyalty to himself, as the touchstone of political purpose.”

Perhaps only Blair himself has been criticised even more since leaving office than while in it, and it shows. His hair is grey, his face hollowed out, his voice prone to croakiness and faltering. It is, of course, Iraq that haunts him most, and always will

But here’s the rub. That piece isn’t Nick Cohen, Martin Kettle or Polly Toynbee lambasting Boris Johnson in 2021. It’s Hugo Young excoriating Tony Blair in 2001, not long into his second term. Sepia can be the most deceptive of hues and history as fallible as it is flattering, recasting its figures as fondly-remembered characters from bygone dramas rather than the pilloried and flawed operators they inevitably were and equally inevitably had to be.

Perhaps only Blair himself has been criticised even more since leaving office than while in it, and it shows. His hair is grey, his face hollowed out, his voice prone to croakiness and faltering. It is, of course, Iraq that haunts him most, and always will. While many believe this corrosion to be his just desserts, others surely have sympathy for a terrible decision (in the old-fashioned sense of the adjective) taken in presumably good faith. Either way, it underlined the importance of chance in politics and life alike. Would there even have been New Labour had John Smith not died suddenly, and tragically young, in 1994? Would Prime Minister Smith have taken us to war in Iraq? Probably not: he had held out against military intervention following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and his first boss Harold Wilson had refused to send British troops to Vietnam. That same hypothetical Prime Minister Smith might also have avoided Blair’s other most egregious failure, the relentlessly aggressive spin-doctoring of every story which has done untold damage to the public perception of politics and politicians alike.

And this is where the programme seemed more than just an exercise in nostalgia, for the time it remembers is at once long gone and yet still perfectly relevant. There have been thirteen general elections in the past half-century, and in only three of them has a party won 43% of the vote: Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Blair in 1997, and Boris Johnson in 2019. Just as there’s a straight line from Thatcher to Blair – it was her example that persuaded Blair to wrestle back the mantle of working-class aspiration for Labour, rather than just working-class tribalism – so too is there a straight line from Blair to Johnson. For the logical end point of a governing culture that not only tolerates but encourages deception and manipulation (exacerbated many times in the interim by the rise of social media) is an electorate that no longer cares it’s being lied to, and therefore elevates a serial fibber to the top job.

But this alone does not explain Johnson’s success, and he has more in common with Blair than either man might care to admit. Aristotle identified three sources of persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos appeals to logic, pathos to emotions, and ethos to character. Blair at his best marshalled all three in an equilibrium as near to perfect as made no difference (as did Thatcher), and if Johnson is not quite in that league he is more than good enough, especially in the way his humour and character (or perhaps more accurately the jester mask he dons) mask the sometimes yawning chasms in his logic. Johnson’s positivity, like Blair’s, is infectious. That people want simple answers to complex questions is not new: but when those answers come wrapped up in a chuckle and a conspiratorial wink, they become more seductive yet. Johnson makes people laugh, and his charisma can seem a generous and inclusive one. Of course, there are millions who despise him, but the same holds true for every leader, and every leader has to deal with three separate electoral demographics: the ones who will always vote for them, the ones who will never vote for them, and the ones who can be persuaded either way. Only the third group is really worth spending time and effort on, and if those people like a leader more than they dislike him or her then that leader is in business.

Nor does Johnson do what so many of his fellow politicians on both sides do, and talk down to people. For a man seemingly liable to break into Latin at any moment, he very much speaks Joe Public’s language: a refusal to talk Britain down, an apparently sincere belief that this country is still a great one, and a very obvious immersion in the values of nation, patriotism, community, heritage, history, continuity, stability and most of all, pride. Every party leader claims to espouse these, of course, but perhaps only Thatcher, Blair and Johnson have been more convincing than not in that espousal.

Blair also had to do what the other two didn’t, in fighting against the fact that Britain is at heart a conservative country: so much so, in fact, that he’s not just the only Labour leader to have won three elections on the bounce, but also the only man alive to have won even one. And no part of Britain is more conservative than by far the most populous one, England, something which has come into play these past few years with the rise of the SNP and the consequent annihilation of Labour representation north of the border. In Blair’s three election victories, Labour won an average of 51 seats per election in Scotland: in the past three elections the figure is less than five. Any Labour leader who can overcome these disadvantages will have to be not just better than their Tory opponent, but considerably better. They will, in other words, need to have peak-era-Blair’s swagger, confidence and stardust: and neither Keir Starmer
nor any of his colleagues appears to have even a fraction of those.

Like Blair before him (and to an extent Thatcher before that), Johnson’s biggest rivals seem to be the ones alongside and behind him in the Commons rather than those across the floor. It’s therefore easy to see him remaining in power until the end of his next full term in 2029

Like Blair before him (and to an extent Thatcher before that), Johnson’s biggest rivals seem to be the ones alongside and behind him in the Commons rather than those across the floor. It’s therefore easy to see him remaining in power until the end of his next full term in 2029, which would give him a decade in Number 10 and a case to be remembered alongside Thatcher and Blair as the longest-serving and most influential Prime Minister in living memory. The “most influential” tag will no doubt infuriate those who think of Johnson as a fundamentally unserious man with myriad flaws, but it’s true. The most seismic political change of this generation has been Brexit, and he has been more responsible for that than any other single individual. It was his articles lampooning the EU while he was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Brussels during the 1990s which gave voice to a widespread anti-federalist sentiment; it was his decision to join and lead the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 which gave it a possibly decisive fillip; and it was he who as prime minister “got Brexit done”. Whether or not these are positive developments is both debatable and irrelevant: influential is still influential whether or not you like the results.

It might well be, of course, that Johnson doesn’t last the course. He may walk away from the job of his own accord, bored by the administrative demands or eager to maximise his earning potential. He could be derailed by what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”. The Owen Paterson case, for example, does not seem in itself to have seriously damaged him, but a few more similar episodes will have a cumulative effect both on support from his own MPs and public perception of his competence and integrity. Thatcher and Blair eventually ran out of road and given enough time, Johnson will too: the wisdom of Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failure is very rarely tested. But for now at least he has the chance to stand alongside them, and perhaps in another twenty years’ time the BBC (or whatever’s left of it by then) will make a documentary guaranteed to make Generation Z go as misty-eyed as this one did for Generation X.

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now

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