Friday, September 08, 2006

Going or Staying

Why does Tony Blair feel it's worth risking humiliation to remain Prime Minister? It's an irony of the position that the very things worth doing the job for make you steadily less suitable to do it. But being PM is addictive and holders of the job generally have to be prised out of the door.

The perks are sensational. The houses spring to mind; Chequers is reportedly fabulous in the Summer, with its staff and swimming pool, and of course there's the convenience and centrality of Downing Street. When the PM picks up the phone he can speak to anyone he likes, with the possible exception of Osama Bin Laden. If you want to go anywhere, cheerful plain clothes detectives bring up a convoy of Range Rovers, or an aircraft of your own can be used. Want to meet a celebrity? Anyone interesting can be invited for lunch by your office. Dinner at the Ivy? That's very fixable too.

Against this amazing access to life's finer things and people has to be set the continual scrutiny by opponents and the media; the constraints on one's personal behaviour (it's unacceptable for a PM to lose his temper or even express himself honestly with anyone other than a small number of people who won't ring the papers or pop the incident in a memoir) and the fact that a variety of terrorists and nutters would love you to meet a bloody end. Indeed, some are possibly conspiring to make it happen.

The effect of these distortions is to set the leader apart from the swing of natural life. He never sits in a traffic queue. He virtually never buys anything in a shop, and he was in opposition the last time he experienced the pain of paying for petrol himself. It's unlikely the postcode lottery for health care has an impact on the PM's life, or those of his immediate family members. He spends no time in a pub where he might meet disgruntled voters. In short, he's in a bubble. Bubble Blair.

Of course things do get through to BB; the papers, provides he bothers - John Major infamously gave up looking at them. TV plays its part, and I've never believed Prime Ministerial expressions of naivety when it comes to the Internet. He knows what a browser is for, I'm quite sure. His family see more of real life and Blair says they inform him of it at breakfast.

But the addiction lies not so much in the perks as the centrality of the role. When the phone rings, it could be George Bush, or Kofi Annan, or Jacques Chirac. Blair knows phone traffic after BB bursts will be very dull by comparison. He'll give lectures and be well paid, but what's that next to PMQ's? Then there'll be the temptation to be a back seat driver and whine at Brown's moves; even Thatcher gave vent at times, appearing on ITN to demand policy changes on Bosnia.

It's easy to snipe and meddle; and as nostalgia overtakes the party for the man they dumped, he'll be tempted to become the focus of alienated backbenchers and peers.

And disturbingly, Blair doesn't strike me as a man with a hinterland; indeed apart from tennis I have no idea if he has any hobbies. He'll write the book, and again he'll be well paid. But he'll be in a wintry landscape and he might give way to bitterness. I'd reflect though, if I were him, that Churchill too had wilderness years. And when his country needed him, the phone rang.

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