He begins to share his impressions of Putin with reporters who crowd around, kneeling on seats and straining to hear him over the engines. The mood is informal but Blair's purpose, as always, is serious: to draw us into the world of the hard decisions he must weigh, hoping to soften criticism that his trip amounted to coddling Chechnya's chief war criminal. He describes Putin's intelligence and toughness, his un-Soviet willingness to debate points over lunch without resorting to notes. Putin gave him an earful about the dangers to the whole Caucasus of terrorism masquerading as Islam; Blair responded that Russian military action should be "proportionate" and that all war crimes allegations should be investigated. Putin "took on board" everything he had to say about human rights, Blair recounts. But did Putin promise anything specific? "We'll have to see what happens," Blair says. Then for a second he looks off as if thinking to himself, gives a small shrug, and moves to another topic.
It is the most revealing moment of the trip, that shrug: the authentic gesture of a realist. He does not fuss about what he cannot change. Blair knew perfectly well that Putin had been ignoring for months all Western pleas on Chechnya. He was glad to restate the argument for moderation and human rights monitors but expected nothing. He came courting to St. Petersburg anyway, because he is convinced that Russia's thousands of nukes and its fitful search for a path to modernity give Britain a powerful interest in engaging its new boss. For Blair, politics is not sentiment or aspiration, but results. As he once proclaimed to the French National Assembly: "What counts is what works."
Since he took charge of the Labour Party in 1994, Blair's detractors on both left and right have had contempt for that deep-rooted pragmatism, believing it not so much a political philosophy as an excuse to do whatever will get him through the next news cycle. Roy Hattersley, the party's former deputy leader, calls it "taking the politics out of politics." But given Labour's transformation under Blair's leadership from a defensive, ideologically fractured vote loser to a party of government with a 179-seat majority, his critics have had to acknowledge his competence even if they still deride as vapid his vision of a "modern" Britain, both more enterprising and more compassionate. As Prime Minister he has continued to stress results, mainly practical improvements in the quality of government services, from waiting lists in the National Health Service to a comprehensive attack on long-term unemployment.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the next election. The Prime Minister who has staked himself to results is finding them hard to deliver. Fixing the National Health Service — which ran out of emergency beds last winter and makes some heart bypass patients wait a year or more for their surgery — is costing more and taking longer than voters expected. School class sizes are dropping in the youngest grades, but rising in others. Crime is on the up. Dissent from inside Labour, never entirely absent, has suddenly flourished, with formerly loyal supporters calling Blair a "control freak," deaf to the party's core supporters, niggardly with pensioners, isolated.
Blair has given them some ammunition, particularly his fixation on keeping the left-wing Ken Livingstone from becoming London's mayor. He rigged the Labour primary against Livingstone in a way widely viewed as unfair and meddlesome, and even so failed miserably when Livingstone won as an independent, with lots of support from Labour voters eager to take Blair down a peg.
All these problems are corroding his most potent political armor, Labour's buoyant approval ratings. It's now only eight points ahead of the Conservatives in one survey of how people intend to vote at the next election, though more than double that in others. The Tories won the European Parliament elections last summer and 593 local council seats last month, largely because Labour voters stayed home. Tory leader William Hague has made some well-timed populist appeals for more cops and tougher treatment of criminals and asylum seekers. Last week he promised a $10.42 weekly rise in the basic state pension, capitalizing on anger at Labour's elegantly designed but poorly understood system of a $1.12 increase coupled with other allowances targeted at the poorest pensioners.
Blair himself is becoming less popular, with one poll finding 34% satisfied with the job he's doing, while 33% are not. The birth of little Leo appears to have given his dad a baby present of three or four points, but after three years of flatlining, the Conservatives at least have a pulse. Francis Maude, their shadow foreign minister, argues that "if you look carefully at Labour's support at the last election, it was broad but pretty thin. I think it's brittle. It's like a sheet of ice across a lake, which can look fine for a long time but then gets a few cracks and suddenly disappears."
The Tories should be so lucky. But Maude raises a question that Blair and his closest aides are fretting about too: Are they just suffering from normal midterm blues, when the compromises needed to run a complex government with finite resources collide with the high expectations that accompany a landslide? Or is it something more serious? Ben Pimlott, Warden of Goldsmiths College and historian of the Labour Party, puts his finger on Blair's dilemma: "Will it go down as a great radical government, or one that had a great opportunity but squandered its majority?"MORE
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Much rides on Blair himself. His is the most centralized administration in British history. Ten Downing St. controls the agenda and message of government in a way that borrows explicitly from the take-no-prisoners style of Bill Clinton's White House, even planning a new Web-based computer system to make sure that every department and minister can respond instantly and uniformly to problems or critics. Blair himself is really the "brand" of New Labour, his earnest face heavily promoted as the party's message on wallet cards, posters and TV, now personally directing the effort to fix the Health Service. So far his ubiquity has paid off: Hattersley, who criticizes Blair from the left, nevertheless admires the appeal of his intelligence and good-neighborliness. "There's a lot to be said for a politician you'd like to marry your daughter," he says.
But this benign image is decaying a little. Even before baby Leo was keeping him up nights, one longtime colleague thought Blair looked "shattered" — exhausted. Recent speeches have shown touches of exasperation with voters for their impatience and failure to grasp what he's trying to accomplish. At a town meeting in Kilsyth, Scotland, last March, four times he told the audience that "you have to understand" that the government has hard choices and is doing the best it can — as if the disillusion he sensed was their fault. William Hague is trying to rattle Blair at their weekly setpiece battle, Prime Minister's Question Time, so "the public will see the scowl on Blair's face," says a Tory insider.
The government's permanent war footing has prompted ministers to announce "new" programs several times, use dubious accounting to inflate spending on vote getters like education, and to downplay hidden tax increases. When the Prime Minister hand-wrote a 975-word rebuttal to a front-page attack in the mass-circulation tabloid Sun, the paper ran it under the headline "Rattled." Aides admit the letter was a mistake, but the conviction that grim and constant vigilance is the price of survival starts at the very top of 10 Downing St. "This sentiment may derive from a streak of Puritanism in me," Blair said earlier this year, "but I have always believed that progress comes at a price ... If life gets better, it gets harder."
Curiously, Baby Leo is giving his dad a chance to retune his political antennae just when he needs it. Blair decided against paternity leave, but after two days at home with the newborn, he cleared his schedule for two weeks and asked his deputy John Prescott to take over most official duties. Mostly he wants to bond with the baby — and yes, prime ministers do change diapers — but Time has learned that Blair also feels a need to "take stock, stand back and think about what he really wants to accomplish" before the election expected next year, says a senior aide. "It's not a great big rethink, it's not that we're sitting around with graphs and polls." Mostly he will be talking to confidants like Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary who may run the next campaign, to figure out how to refocus the government's message, "which has become too cluttered. You can't believe how much time as Prime Minister is taken up with crises, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, managing the in-box," says the aide. "This two weeks is a sensible time to take stock."
There's enough good news around that Blair could emerge from his mini-retreat determined to barrel on and trust that voters will stick with him despite his warts. Crucially, Britain's economy is healthy and stable, with growth at 3% and average earnings in January a remarkable 4.8% higher than a year ago. Showing the country that Labour could really be trusted to run the economy has been Blair's overwhelming goal, the key element of his campaign to be the first Labour Prime Minister returned to a full second term, and so far it's worked. Peter Kilfoyle, an early Blair backer who quit his ministerial job in March out of frustration that Blair is ignoring core Labour voters and the industrial north, nevertheless admires his discipline. "He's been extremely slow and cautious, but not necessarily to his detriment. He hasn't been seen to take decisions that have spectacularly blown up." Even with the Tories starting to gain, "Blair's is the only government since polling began in Britain 60 years ago that has never fallen behind the opposition in surveys of voting intentions," says Roger Mortimore, senior political analyst at the opinion firm MORI.
But Labour officials still worry about the 1996 election in Queensland, Australia, where a popular Labour government lost because too many supporters stayed home. Blair's critics in his own party think he could head off this prospect here if he treated them more like colleagues than impediments. "Tony doesn't take criticism well, even constructive criticism," says Kilfoyle, whom no senior figure sought out for a heart-to-heart after he resigned. Tom Sawyer, former Labour general secretary, says more gently that Blair could inspire deeper commitment "if we all ate in the same canteen" instead of his "command style of government."
Just as Newt Gingrich helped Bill Clinton, a more credible Hague will quiet Blair's internal critics. But there's a paradox at the heart of Blair's strategy. He has always been skilled at convincing voters he's on their side, but only now is his government starting to spend at levels that can redeem his vision of a thoroughly modernized Britain. For big institutions like the Health Service, real progress will take years.
In the Britain Blair is helping create, people are more consumerist, demanding, politically volatile, yet his strategy rests on their willingness to delay gratification and accept his word that things will someday get better. "Training a heart doctor takes seven years. These things won't fix overnight," says a senior official. "Promising you will square a circle that is unsquarable has diminishing returns. We have to be quite tough in our message."
In fact, Blair's campaign pledges were carefully drafted to be achievable, but the mood music of his landslide has left expectations of much greater accomplishment. A time-honored way to ease voter discontent would be pork-barrel politics, like boosting the basic pension instead of the additional grants the government thinks are a better way to target the poorest retirees. Forget it, says a Blair aide. "What would be loopy would be to bung the pensioners another five pounds [a week] because we're not winning their votes. It's important people understand that we're not going to throw overboard sensible policies because of some dip in the polls."
So, Britain: Take it or leave it. From modernizing the Labour Party to bombing Kosovo to visiting Putin, Blair has shown he's not afraid to lead, which on balance has been an electoral asset. Now he must lead the electors themselves to eat their vegetables — because it will be better for them in the long run — and to like it enough to re-elect him. It's a good thing that Blair has been reading the Koran lately. It may provide him some comfort when he comes across this verse: "Surely I have rewarded them this day because they were patient..." Will the country be patient enough to let little Leo start school from Downing Street?