INSIDE OUT: Andrew Neil

INSIDE OUT: Andrew Neil - The Blairite 'big tent' has been torn down and a gladiatorial arena built in its place - in which the PM is taking on and slaying all his political demons.

by Andrew Neil is publisher of The Business and Scotsmannewspapers
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Blairite 'big tent' has been torn down and a gladiatorial arena built in its place - in which the PM is taking on and slaying all his political demons.

The New Year started with a remarkable transformation in the prime minister, and this has continued as 2003 progresses. The change will make or break his premiership.

Out is 'Bambi' Blair, the king of consensus who never took a stance on anything without first consulting his focus groups and opinion polls.

In is a tough man in a hurry, standing up for what he believes and prepared to take no prisoners among those who get in his way.

The new Blair has been seen in public most forcefully in the House of Commons, where the prime minister now seems to relish tackling his critics - especially those on his own backbenches - head on. Attack the PM for his hard-line stance on war with Iraq and Blair is in full flow, abandoning any notes to mow down opposition on both sides of the House.

Some Labour MPs are aghast. He's on a Washington DC body clock, jeered one. He seems to have gone completely mad, said two Labour MPs. Separately.

Blair does not care: this is not the man who was elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001.

Now he seems to relish picking a fight with his own party on their most sensitive subjects. The Blairite 'big tent' has been torn down and a gladiatorial arena built in its place - in which he is intent on taking on and slaying all his political demons at once, at home and abroad.

Fire strikers? Force a pay settlement on them - our terms or nothing.

House of Lords reform? A chamber of appointees is the answer - to hell with the Labour consensus for an elected element. Human Rights Convention?

We'll scrap that too if need be, to produce a tougher policy to deal with bogus asylum seekers.

The list of defiance goes on. Oxford University needs more cash for research?

Let it - and all universities - take students for as much as pounds 3,000 in fees a year to pay for it. Does this mean scrapping our manifesto pledge? You bet.

North Korea? You're right, it's next after Iraq. When will the fighting stop? When I'm finished looking for terrorists.

Being a world statesman leaves Blair short of time to carry through the radical domestic reforms he wishes he'd done in the first term - which makes him now a more ruthless prime minister.

This is the last year to plant reforms in schools, hospitals and other public services that would bear fruit for voters to taste by the 2005 general election. The new not-for-profit foundation hospitals need to be signed up now, for example, to cut waiting lists by the election.

The clock is ticking and, for the new Blair, consensus is now a hindrance.

'We are at our best when at our boldest,' he told delegates at last autumn's Labour conference. This was the personal mantra he resolved to enact during 2003.

This became the year to make enemies. Blair was warned that 2003 would be his annus horribilis. 'The second year of the second term is when all governments suffer rebellions and discontent,' explained one Blairite adviser. 'We may as well pick the good fights and then get them all over with.'

The biggest obstacle lies in the Treasury, where on domestic matters Chancellor Gordon Brown fills the vacuum left by a globetrotting PM. Blair had to confront this obstacle to get his way: this became the year to take Brown on.

The first - and perhaps decisive - clash happened in January. At a domestic affairs cabinet committee, Brown tried to veto university top-up fees, saying he had enough money to finance the universities without them. For the first time since Labour came to power six years ago, Brown was challenged and defeated on a matter of finance. The victor was Charles Clarke, the education secretary, who overruled the chancellor under Blair's instruction.

Rather than secure Brown's support, or neutrality, Blair (through Clarke) defied him. This marks a seminal moment in the Blair-Brown relationship - and telling evidence that there is indeed a new Blair at work.

After many years of relying on Brown as his political co-pilot, he will now fly solo. This has not gone unnoticed in the cabinet. Since Brown's budget rectitude started to unravel, he has lost his reputation as a political untouchable. At cabinet meetings now he is treated with far less reverence by Blair and other ministers.

The Labour Left will have plenty more to complain about: 'tis the season for ramming unpalatable policies down their throats, thinks Blair. He believes the Left has held back reform on too many domestic fronts for long enough; he has decided he can win through without them.

This is what's got into the PM: he has a 2005 election clock ticking inside his head and has been converted to the virtues of conflict - not just in Iraq, but against his own party.

The new Tony Blair is at war on the home as much as the foreign front, and the stakes could not be higher: success means he will go down in history as one of the great prime ministers; but failure means his premiership will go down in flames. We will not have long to wait to see his fate.

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