OPINION: Blair embodies self-interested Middle England

The Cash for Grades row over the Prime Minister paying private tutors to top up his sons' education has exposed a fundamental truth about this government - at its heart, New Labour embodies the New Selfishness. Tony Blair has turned hypocrisy into a core value.

Despite vicious attacks from most newspapers, from the headmaster of the school his sons attend and from the respected former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, Tony Blair has again emerged with his reputation seemingly unharmed.

The latest poll shows that 57 per cent of people believe he acted properly in employing private tutors for his sons, and 70 per cent of parents who have a child at a state school would do exactly the same if they could afford it. Blair is the ultimate washing powder brand. Whatever muck you put in - Stephen Byers' performance in and out of bed, Black Rod, increased taxes, failing public services - he comes out whiter than white.

Although he suffers momentary setbacks, with rogue polls sporadically showing he is 'almost as unpopular as Iain Duncan Smith' (evidently a new measure of unpopularity), Blair always bounces back. He is the super bounce ball of British politics. There is a crisp collective chorus of disapproval, then all is forgiven, or at least forgotten.

The success of the Blair project is that it has tapped into the intrinsic selfishness of this new, affluent Britain, while maintaining a veneer of decency. In his own words, he's 'a regular kind of guy'; in mine, he's a regular kind of hypocrite. He is, in fact, both things and that's the trick.

The actions for which he and his family have been most prosecuted in the court of public opinion - freebie luxury holidays, private jet travel, bending the rules to get his kids into one of the best state schools, junkets with mum-in-law to President Bush's ranch - have basically got the thumbs up from the British people, and here we're talking about the vast middle class which has gobbled up most of British society.

As long as Blair's actions fall into the category of middle-class self-interest, as long as they pass the 'well, I'd do the same given half a chance' test, he gets public approval, whatever the chattering classes or the right-wing press may say.

One of the great myths of the late 20th century - culminating in the Caring Nineties - was that people became more socially inclusive. In fact, what happened was that greater affluence made the British more caring only about themselves.

Which is not to say we are an uncivilised lot, far from it, more that our social conscience comes a long way down the list of motivating factors.

We all need to feel we are decent people, while operating on a level of quite astute self-interest.

Blair has cornered the market in the selfish gene, which the Conservatives used to have but are now doing everything they can to genetically modify.

While the Tories turn themselves inside out trying to position themselves as the Nice Party with their latest Soup Kitchen Initiative, and fall even further behind in the polls as a result, Blair continues to demonstrate that what people want in a politician is someone who will best represent their self-interest.

The British don't elect politicians to be nice. If they did, Margaret Thatcher would never have entered Number 10. And it would be a mistake to interpret George Bush's brand of Caring Conservatism as anything other than tough love.

In modern politics there is no calling for a bleeding hearts agenda, as the British Tories mistakenly think, and as Blair demonstrates on an almost daily basis.

Charlie Whelan is on holiday.

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