Guns blazing

The campaign is flat out, and so is the prime minister; a whirlwind of argument, arms flailing, fingers stabbing. By the time I get to speak to him, he has already chaired a morning press conference, been quizzed for half an hour by doubting Radio 1 music station listeners and knocked off a couple of other TV and radio interviews. He’s covered Iraq, crime, immigration, tax and national insurance, family-friendly policies and inevitably, trust.
Just an ordinary campaigning morning, in fact.

Now he’s heading to the city of Bristol for another gig in the Brown-Blair campaign, where the two of them praise each other with almost embarrassing excess: Gordon Brown - his chancellor, or finance minister — attributes much of the regeneration evident around Bristol to Blair’s leadership; Blair once again describes Brown as the best chancellor the country has had for 100 years. It is practised gush.

There are two key questions of interest I want to ask the prime minister: how can people be expected to vote for him after Iraq, and when is he going to hand over to Brown?

On Iraq he has accepted that some people will never forgive him for taking Britain to war: “I’ve come to the conclusion that for those people who are opposed to the war, the more I put my point of view, the more it simply irritates them.’’ This seems a brilliant excuse for never talking about it again. Yet, he persists in trying to explain his actions: “I’ve gone over it not just publicly, but in my own mind. I come back to the fact that a decision had to be taken. I could have backed away but that would also have had its consequences.If we’d taken the opposite decision it would not have been consequence-free either.’‘

As to any suggested deal with Brown, he moves beyond the familiar formula about a brilliant chancellor. He announces, as if it is a coming fact of life: “Gordon would make an excellent prime minister.’’ Does that mean that when the time comes he will personally vote for him? Blair replies, while refusing to be drawn on the timing: “I’ve said what I’ve said and I think it’s pretty obvious what I’m saying’‘, as clear an endorsement as we’re likely to get at this stage.

If some have doubts about the durability of the Brown-Blair partnership beyond election day, Blair is keen to demonstrate that it’s not just a partnership he’s working on, but a whole team effort. Instead of the presidential style we’ve been used to, he’s stressing that it’s the entire Labour team who are up for re-election, accepting that, at first, his government was run by a small coterie. “There has been in the past couple of years and there certainly will be in future, a greater sense that there is a team.When we were in opposition it necessarily hinged around a few key people.’’ That style, he admits, went into government with him, but now it’s changing: “It’s absolutely essential that we build a strong team for the future and present a strong team for now.’‘

That sounds encouraging, but what of reports that Lord (John) Birt is to be brought in after the election to head up a special prime minister’s delivery unit, driving radical change through. “John has always been there as an adviser and he does it extremely well, he gives you a different perspective on things.’‘

He is more enthusiastic about the former home secretary (interior minister), David Blunkett, who has made clear his desire to return to the Cabinet after polling day. “Yes, I would like to see him back, yes ... you’ve got to analyse everything at the time and what the competing claims of people are, and I’m not presuming anything at all, but I’ve no doubt he’s got something to offer. I think the Tories [as the Conservatives are also known] would have been able to do a lot more on this asylum issue had it not been for the changes that he made.’‘

On that issue, he says, the Conservatives have run “a pretty unscrupulous campaign’‘, but it has not been the defining issue of the election. Blair has found a more complex issue on the mind of the electorate — revealed when I ask what he’s found most interesting about the last few weeks.

“There’s a real sense out there that, whether it’s in relation to discipline in schools or Friday or Saturday night hooliganism outside pubs, people have a real desire for a society of respect and rules, but without prejudice.’’ He admits that some of the problems are “very deep rooted’’ but promises a real debate about it. On one matter, though, he is clear: “There comes a point when you have to say this is a responsibility of government, but it is also something we as a government cannot do on our own ... you’ve got to look at modern government as a partnership with people.

“You can make laws but you can’t directly alter behaviour unless you’ve got understanding and support within the local communities and at village, street, town level for the things that you’re trying to do.’’ More Cabinet government, more power sharing with local communities: it all sounds very good, but why should people believe it? Did he not accept there was a huge sense of disappointment after all those promises of “a new dawn’’ when he was first elected?

He’s quite unapologetic about this, quoting Bill Clinton as saying that people with a progressive agenda will always be disappointed: “... there will always be disappointments and things you profoundly disagree with, but just ask yourself the question, is the economy stronger, has the investment gone into our schools, have we tried to do something to help families and pensioners in poverty, have we tried to address the problems of the Third World in a completely different way to our predecessors? And the answer to all those questions is yes, and we can do so much more.”

He’s not perfect, Blair admits, but no one is. “I think what I have learnt is that if people expect a perfect government or a perfect prime minister, they will wait for ever.’’ Or for Gordon, I quip. Blair looks a little startled. Then, give the man his due, he laughs. Brown, ever cautious, feigns sleep. There are some issues too sensitive for fully frank body language in front of outsiders. — Â

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