1st Anniversary Finds Blair Going StrongBy T. R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 2 1998; Page A13
On the first anniversary of the spectacular election victory that put him at the pinnacle of British politics, Prime Minister Tony Blair is flying even higher than he was a year ago, with unchallenged control of his "New Labor" government and the strongest approval ratings this country has seen in half a century.
But harsh winds are building on the British horizon, and Blair's trademark boyish grin may well fade to a frown before he completes his second year in office.
Still a week shy of his 45th birthday, Blair is the youngest prime minister since the Earl of Liverpool held the job in 1812. And the image he projects, of youthful energy and innovation, is in sync with the mood of a prosperous, confident nation that considers itself the financial and cultural pacesetter of Europe.
Blair and his media handlers have worked hard to burnish that image; candid photos of the prime minister chatting with the Spice Girls or playing guitar with Oasis somehow leak regularly to the magazines. The patina of glitz has prompted criticism that his government is all show and no substance.
In fact, though, the Blairites can point to some hefty policy initiatives.
The Labor cabinet has launched major changes in Britain's unwritten constitution to make government less centralized and more democratic. These steps will give residents of Scotland, Wales, and even the City of London their own elected governments.
Blair further diminished central government power -- but won strong approval from financial markets -- by giving the Bank of England autonomy on setting interest rates. He shocked the bowler-hat-and-black-umbrella set by proposing that sons of the elite should no longer be allowed to inherit a seat in the House of Lords. He bowed to the right by tightening welfare rules and pleased the left by proposing the nation's first minimum wage law.
And he brought his first year to a dramatic close three weeks ago when he brokered the Good Friday agreement for peace in Northern Ireland -- an achievement, if it holds up, that would be enough to put any prime minister in the history books.
Blair has been able to take on this ambitious agenda because his landslide victory last May 1 gave the Labor Party an overwhelming majority in Parliament. It was the first Labor triumph in two decades, and the party's delegation in the House of Commons -- including 101 female members, whom the newspapers call "Blair's Babes" -- has been totally loyal to the leader who brought them to power.
But Blair's support goes beyond his party. Polls show that he is the country's most popular politician among young and old, left and right, black, brown, and white voters. Even members of the chief opposition party, the Conservatives, rank him higher than their own party leaders.
Therein lies one key reason for Blair's stature. He has had no effective opposition, whether from the press or other politicians.
The Conservative Party, which had run this country almost as a single-party state for 18 years, has been conspicuously missing from political combat. "One can do nothing but marvel," said political analyst Anthony Howard, "at the government's good fortune in having this undisciplined rabble as the opposition."
Another key element of Blair's banner year is an asset he shares with his role model, Bill Clinton: a strong economy. Thanks to low unemployment and zesty consumer spending, the Blairites have been able to increase spending on schools and child care while cutting the deficit.
But the economy is one of the ill winds now skirting Blair's political flanks.
Britain's export-driven industrial sector is wilting each month. Almost every economist predicts that manufacturing will slip into recession this year. If the still-thriving service sector -- accounting, finance, high-tech -- slides downhill as well, the Blair boom could quickly go bust.
The larger whirlwind, gathering just offshore, is the emergence of a united Europe. While 11 Western European nations are ready to join the European Monetary Union, Blair says Britain will not adopt the single European currency until the next national election -- which could be four years away. If the euro turns out to be a strong, respected currency after its birth in January, Britain will be left to watch from the sidelines.
The tendency to duck big questions -- to fall back on slogans or artful evasion -- is another potential pitfall.
Blair's government is often compared to the Clinton administration. In policy terms -- the way Blair and Clinton moved a liberal party toward the center -- the parallels are obvious. But in public relations, Blair's team is more reminiscent of the Reagan administration, where White House media expert Michael Deaver plotted President Ronald Reagan's every step with an eye toward how it would play on TV news.
Two terms coined in Washington in the 1980s to describe Deaver's methods are all the rage in London political circles: "spin" and "on-message." Blair's team works assiduously to spin daily press coverage in their direction, and the prime minister openly insists that his entire party stick to the assigned message in speeches and interviews.
A recent controversy illustrates the danger. Blair was accused of intervening for one of his major backers, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, on a business deal in Italy. Blair's staff dismissed the story as "a joke," and the government denounced the accusation.
In fact, Blair had talked to Italy's prime minister about the Murdoch deal. When the truth came out, it prompted public speculation that the prime minister's word was not to be trusted.
"One of the great assets of this young government is that they have the people's trust," said Roy Jenkins, a historian and longtime titan of the Labor Party. "But too much media manipulation, and you lose trust -- first in political circles, and gradually among the people as a whole.
"And with a loss of trust, the enviable standing they enjoy after one year could be lost as well."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company