The man in whom so many hopes were now vested seemed a very different proposition from his predecessor as prime minister. Tony Blair’s privileged background, complete with private education and Oxford degree, was a long way removed from John Major’s childhood in South London, but there were points of connection – in particular their family history in entertainment.
Blair’s paternal grandparents had, like Major’s father, been stalwarts of the music halls: Celia Ridgway as a dancer and Charles Parsons, her third husband (though they were unmarried at the time of the birth of Blair’s father), as a comedian who called himself Jimmy Lynton. It was in his grandfather’s honour that Blair was gifted his middle names, Charles Lynton. Major was similarly bequeathed a stage name; his father’s real name was Tom Ball, only adding the Major when he formed a double-act called Drum and Major. The music hall roots were even of similar vintage, Jimmy Lynton being born just eight years after Tom Major-Ball.
Those roots expressed themselves in both men, but while it took the 1992 election to get Major onto his soapbox playing to the crowd, Blair followed the more conventional, self-indulgent path of a middle-class man of his generation. ‘I have always been crazy about rock music,’ he later commented, and while at Oxford in the early 1970s he sang with a student group, named Ugly Rumours, also featuring the future music journalist Mark Ellen on bass.
‘We were rather tragic, and had precisely zero presence on stage,’ remembered Ellen. ‘We were yards of unconditioned hair in cowboy boots.’ Blair sported a cut-off T-shirt to reveal his midriff as he posed like Mick Jagger, though the setlist was dominated by covers of West Coast American bands like the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers, and his voice was described by his future wife (one of the few people to have a tape of the band) as ‘reedy’. There appears to have been little serious intent in the venture, nor in Blair’s vague attempts to promote rock gigs in London, but he showed more commitment to the project than he ever did to student politics.
There was also a show-business element in his marriage in 1980 to Cherie, daughter of Tony Booth, the actor who appeared in the Confessions movies and whose best-known role was as Mike, the socialist son-in-law of working-class Tory Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. By this stage, the long hair and the bared midriff had been consigned to history. Blair was an active member of the Labour Party, was working as a lawyer, having reverted to more immediate family precedent – his father had practised and lectured in law – and was beginning to think about Parliament.
His first opportunity came at the 1982 Beaconsfield by-election, held during the course of the Falklands War. Largely as a result of that conflict, it turned out to be the only by-election in eighteen years of Conservative rule that saw a swing to the government, but perhaps more significant was the homogenisation of the main candidates. All three main parties were represented by men with ‘a civilised, middle class pedigree’, reported the Guardian. ‘Three Oxford-educated chaps, considerately dressed and properly spoken, all from decent public schools.’ Anthony Blair, as he was then known, didn’t exactly stand out from the crowd, and he lost his deposit.
The following year he was parachuted into a safe seat in Sedgefield, County Durham for the 1983 general election and was ready to start working his way to the top. He shared an office at Westminster with another newly elected MP, Gordon Brown, and the pair were identified early on as future stars of the parliamentary party, not least by Peter Mandelson, who took every opportunity to place them on view in the media.
Both men voted for the fashionable candidate, Neil Kinnock, in the leadership election held shortly after their arrival in the Commons, and both threw themselves into the campaign to ditch the left-wing image that Labour had acquired during the ascendancy of Tony Benn.
Often seen in these years as being almost joined at the hip, there were key differences; unlike Brown, Blair had not been born into the movement – his father, once a communist, had long since been a staunch Conservative – and his background was of a kind to cause suspicion in a party that still genuflected to proletarian purism. He had to work harder than his friend and colleague to shed some of his past; it was noticeable, for example, that he was no longer Anthony, just plain Tony.
Of the two, Brown was acknowledged by everyone – including Blair himself – as the senior; a potential leader who was capable of ferocious performances in the Commons, he had age, experience and expectation on his side, and was elected to the shadow cabinet by his fellow MPs a year earlier than was Blair. He was also regarded as the intellectual heavyweight, although much was to be made in later years by Blair’s supporters of their man’s unflinching re-examination of where the party should stand.
‘I developed a theory about the basis of socialism being about “community”,’ Blair explained in his memoirs; ‘i.e. people owed obligations to each other and were social beings, not only individuals out for themselves.’ The word ‘theory’ seemed a little grandiose.
As the defeats for the party continued to mount up, however, it was Blair’s distance from a traditional Labour image that increasingly attracted the approval of colleagues and opponents alike. ‘He could be one of us,’ wrote Gyles Brandreth in his diary in May 1993: ‘public school, Oxford, decent, amiable, well groomed, no known convictions.’
That use of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite phrase of approval – ‘one of us’ – was carefully judged. Labour in the 1980s, for all its left-wing image in the media, had seldom looked like a genuinely radical party; rather it spent its time desperately defending the status quo against the assaults of the Conservative government. Blair, however, leant towards the Thatcherite model of activity at all times, perpetually looking for roots that might be torn up, even if he had little insight into what might be put in their place.
The showbiz element had never quite left him, but as leader it was channelled into his major speeches to the annual conference and elsewhere, occasions that appeared to be treated with a degree of serious preparation not always in evidence when it came to policy-making. He no longer looked like a rock star manqué, though he was clearly conscious that, by the standards of politics, he was a good-looking man.
‘Tony Blair is the first prime minister I can completely imagine having voluntary sex with,’ drooled Bridget Jones, and she wasn’t the only one. A poll in Forum found that Blair was the sexiest man in British politics (not a particularly competitive field), and when, in the summer of 1997, the women’s pages of the Sun ran their annual poll for the ‘top 100 hunks’, he came in as a new entry at number sixty-five, one place ahead of Brett Anderson of Suede, though he was a couple of places behind David Essex and a long way off the pace set by David Beckham, who had supplanted George Clooney in the top spot.