Ten years of Blair the leader

TONY Blair tomorrow celebrates 10 years as Labour leader. Political Editor Graham Dines looks back at his achievements and his failures.IN 1994, Labour was gradually coming off its knees having been battered into virtual oblivion by Margaret Thatcher and a rampant Conservative Party.

TONY Blair tomorrow celebrates 10 years as Labour leader. Political Editor Graham Dines looks back at his achievements and his failures.

IN 1994, Labour was gradually coming off its knees having been battered into virtual oblivion by Margaret Thatcher and a rampant Conservative Party.

The Tories, fearing an unpopular Mrs T would drag them into the electoral mire, dumped her in favour of John Major. Even he managed to defeat Neil Kinnock at the 1992 General Election - but thanks to Labour dropping all its convictions and lurching to the right, it would be Major who would lead the Tories to their doom.

Labour replaced Kinnock with John Smith, whose untimely death was to lead to the New Labour project - a revolution designed to take the democratic left in the UK by the scruff of its neck and turn it into a party which despised the word socialist.


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The person Labour entrusted with leading it back into power was Tony Blair, and less then three years later he duly delivered a victory for "New" Labour. Gone were the "brothers" of working masses and pints of Newcastle Brown - Labour was now a meritocracy dressed in Armani suits and sipping chilled white wine and bottled French water.

Mr Blair's legacy to the Labour Party is to have transformed it into a slick election-winning machine. He abolished Clause IV of the party's constitution, which effectively called for the nationalisation of the central parts of the economy, and replaced it with a less contentious wish to spread equality of opportunity among the many, not the few.

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Gone were the days of the annual blood letting at the Labour Party conference. It has been replaced with a rally as turgid and anodyne as Communist Party gathering in the Central Europe of the 1960s and 70s.

Tony Blair's tenure of Downing Street and his leadership of the Labour Party will be defined by one word: Iraq.

His reputation will stand or fall on the long-term reaction to a conflict which the UK entered against massive public hostility and large sections of the Labour Party. He only carried the vote in the House of Commons thanks to the support of the Tories.

The Prime Minister believes the September 11 2001 attack on New York's twin towers changed everything in international relations and the domestic response to terror threats. His decision to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with US President George Bush - who is deeply unpopular with virtually all Labour supporters -changed everything in Mr Blair's relationship with his party and the people.

Sections of his party, already troubled by his courtship with successive American presidents and his interventionist foreign policy, now feel there are irreconcilable differences with their leader.

The death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, named as the source of a controversial BBC broadcast claiming No 10 had "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons, saw disquiet over the war crystallise and Mr Blair looking a broken man.

Yet for all that, polls show that he is still seen as the man most likely to win the next General Election, both among Labour voters and the electorate at large.

He is still electable because of the continuing abject performance of the Conservatives under Michael Howard, their third leader since 1997.

through Mr Blair's leadership.

That electability is what king maker Peter Mandelson recognised when weighing up, after the death of John Smith in 1994, whether to back the Sedgefield MP or his rival Gordon Brown.

Mr Blair's relationship with Mr Brown, and the controversy over whether the two ever really had a deal for the Chancellor to take over in No 10, has been a running sore in his premiership.

It has provided fuel for both camps of supporters to manipulate headlines, although the two men insist in public that they have the strongest relationship seen for a century between the Prime Minister and a Chancellor.

Despite this, Labour looks poised for a third electoral success. Blair's achievements include massive investment in schools and hospitals, the virtual ending of child poverty, devolved government in Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland peace agreement, and intervention in Kosovo in 1999 to prevent the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic's Serb regime in Belgrade.

Tony Blair's premiership has not been all rosy. He is desperate to make Britain a major player in European affairs, but is stymied because Gordon Brown will not play ball over membership of the single currency.

The foot-and-mouth epidemic should have been handled better and then there were the rows over cronyism to Labour's big money donors.

The Blair era will not go on for ever. But as rumours fly on when he will quit, he insists publicly that he is "up for it" and looking forward to a third term in government.

But when he finally leaves Downing Street, it will be Iraq rather than the drive for social justice for which he will be remembered by future generations.

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