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KING TONY'S REIGN
- Even after eight years, Blair remains something of an enigma

Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Diana, Posh Spice and David Beckham, Hugh Grant and Jemima Goldsmith, but decidedly not Charles and Camilla: the British seem to need long-running obsessions with royalty, and, when the Windsors lose their lustre, rock stars, sports stars, movie stars and billionairesses fill the gap in the national psyche.

Strangely, in the past half-century this long-to-reign-over-us fascination has extended into the political realm. The British have developed a taste for durable political as well as constitutional monarchs, which is to say, for long periods of single-party government. Thirteen years of Conservatism under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home was followed by a decade and a half of Wilson and Callaghan's Labour governments, interrupted only by the brief Heath interregnum. Then came 18 years of Thatcher and Major. Now Tony Blair's New Labour looks like winning a third term and, such is the disarray of its enemies, maybe even a fourth.

King Tony's supremacy is the more remarkable when one considers how widely disliked he is. When he first came to power in 1997, the old Labour warhorse Denis Healey called him 'the Princess Diana of politics', a reference not to the Princess's flaky fragility but to her unquenchable popularity. Now he is not so much Princess Diana as Prince Charles ' grumpy, doctrinaire, out of touch.

Who is Tony Blair' We know his masks ' the boyish beam of his earlier period, the devilishly gleaming eyes of his prewar prime, the grimmer, more careworn expressions of recent days ' but it's striking that, after eight years at 10 Downing Street, he remains something of an enigma, forever striking attitudes, like Lewis Carroll's Anglo-Saxon Messenger, 'skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel,', his true nature slippery and hard to pin down.

We knew from the start that he was something of a control freak, with a touch of the opportunist. We knew, too, that he was contradictory: the leader of a democratic-socialist party who never used the word 'socialism'. In February 1998 I was a dinner guest at Chequers, Blair's country estate, and, when I heard him raise his voice and begin to speak about freedom, I thought, 'I'm interested in that,' and paid attention. A few moments later I realized that he was talking about market freedom, in terms that any Conservative prime minister, but no previous Labour leader, might have used. But we were still in New Labour's honeymoon period, and the memory of the victory of 1997 was still warm.

'Never mind,' I told myself, 'this is not only a decent man but a capable one, and nobody's perfect.'

These were Blair's stocks-in-trade: decency, trustworthiness, competence. His ratings in the first two of those measures have taken some hard knocks. But if he isn't decent, trust-me Tony, then who is he'

In the eyes of many former supporters, he's the guy who got away with murder, launching a war on a flimsy lie and then brazening it out as the case against his decisions grew stronger, clinging to power when many, perhaps all, of his predecessors would have resigned.

It feels almost painful now to remember the heady days of 'Cool Britannia', when there was a tabloidish, third-millennium glamour around No. 10. The pop-star aura worked abroad, too: when Blair visited Moscow in 1997 and took a ride on the metro, Russian schoolgirls screamed like Sixties Beatlemaniacs. The Economist, covering Blair's first post-election party conference, quoted an anonymous observer as saying, 'He could announce the slaughter of the firstborn and still get a standing ovation.'

Well, Blair did order a slaughter, but nobody's standing up to cheer. And the mystery remains: why did Blair buy into Bush's war' Why didn't he demand that the United Nations weapons inspectors be allowed to do their job, and that a genuine anti-Saddam coalition be forged ' as, given time, it almost certainly could have been' Why the rush' Why did he sign onto Bush's unilateralism and Wolfowitz's ideologically driven agenda'

Was it because he and Bush have a deep religious faith in common and they agreed to embark on a new crusade' No, too simple. Was it because he believed the flawed intelligence reports' No, that isn't credible either, because his people massaged that intelligence as hard as they could to justify the war.

A former senior Clinton aide recently put it to me this way: 'He sold his soul to the Devil without even bothering to get something in return.'

This is an almost tragic view of Blair, as someone who did the wrong thing because he believed it to be right and sacrificed his good name for nothing, a puritan Faust damned to Hell without first sampling any earthly delights. One could almost feel sympathy for such a figure, but it would be a sight easier if Blair showed some remorse.

In its absence, the Labour manifesto must be searched for last straws. The post-9/11, post-Iraq-war politics of Britain, as well as of the United States, have been characterized by government assaults on civil liberties and, if the manifesto gives the slightest indication of continuing those assaults, then even lifelong Labour voters should walk away from Blair and vote tactically to defeat him. If, for example, the manifesto reintroduces the much-criticized proposal to create an offence of 'incitement to religious hatred' which the House of Lords successfully blocked last month, and which would sacrifice freedom of speech in order to placate Muslim voters angered by the Iraq war, that will be enough of a last straw for me. I might be persuaded to vote for a competent, if tarnished, control freak, but I will not vote for a control freak in hock to religious inquisitors.

New Labour may yet discover that the free-speech lobby commands a larger voter base than the Islamists, and that playing communalist politics and being prepared to damage fundamental freedoms for narrow electoral advantage is a game that may backfire. The King may yet be dethroned.

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