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Two family tragedies that fuelled Tony Blair's dream to reach the top; THE MAKING OF A PRIME MINISTER.

On Tuesday, Tony Blair will celebrate his 44th birthday - the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812 and the youngest Labour Premier ever.

But if he is anything like his recent predecessors, expect him to age as he grows into the job.

Tony Blair is irritated by the label Tory Blair. But by birth and background a Tory is exactly what you'd expect him to be.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, to give him his full name, even sounds like he should be a Tory.

His father, Leo, WAS one - a barrister and chairman of the Durham Conservative Association who had ambitions to be a Tory MP.

Tony was born in Edinburgh and educated at one of its top public schools, Fettes College.

A year organising pop concerts, labouring on a London building site and even waiting at tables in a Paris restaurant followed.

Then came Oxford University, where he grew his hair down to his shoulders, studied law, enjoyed dating a string of girlfriends and did a passable imitation of Mick Jagger in the student rock band Ugly Rumours.

His time at university took in sex, rock 'n' roll but no drugs. Accused of taking a girl to his rooms against the rules he claimed the lipstick found there by the authorities was his own.

No-one who knew him then remembers any great interest in politics.

He was the typical Seventies, middle-class, public school kid. Life was for living and responsibility could go hang.

A typical young Tory, in fact.

But there was more depth to the young Tony Blair than met the eye. The defining moment happened when he was 11 and his father had a stroke.

That was the end of Leo's political ambitions - and the family fell on hard times.

Having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Tony had to swallow the bitter truth that life was not always a bowl of cherries.

"My father's illness impressed on me from an early age that life was going to be a struggle and there were a lot of losers," he remembers. He learned about the real meaning of struggle and it is a lesson which never left him. One he still preaches to his three children.

"Life isn't easy," he now tells them. "You have to make your own way and no-one will do you any favours."

Tony's family is the bedrock of his life. He married Cherie Booth - now a high-flying QC earning more than her Prime Minister husband - after a three-year courtship. They were both pupils in barrister Lord Derry Irvine's chambers.

Tony stole Cherie - daughter of Till Death Us Do Part "Scouse git" Tony Booth - from another boyfriend. But Lord Irvine didn't notice the budding romance until a meeting to discuss a complicated case.

Legal briefs were clearly not what Tony and Cherie had in mind. And Derry sent them off to the pub.

Tony and Cherie's affection and respect for Derry has endured. Which is why he's now Lord Chancellor.

But there had been more heartache. Tony's sister was plagued by illness and just before graduating, his mother died of cancer.

Tony Blair began to understand that life was not just there to be lived. It also had to be fought. And something else happened at university. Something he is still reluctant to talk about.

It may have been because of all the tragedy in his life, or perhaps it was despite it, that Tony Blair found God.

Graham Dow, then university chaplain, now Bishop of Willesden in London, remembers how seriously Tony took his confirmation classes.

Tony still travels with a Bible. And even during the leadership contest after the sudden death of John Smith three years ago, Tony would get twitchy on the campaign trail if he couldn't find a church in time to take communion.

His aides, who backed him with a religious zealotry but were anything but religious themselves, cooled their heals by tramping round graveyards reading the inscriptions on headstones as Tony took the bread and wine.

They were amused when they found one for a certain John Prescott, whose namesake was then also challenging Tony for the leadership.

As David Owen's SDP threatened to replace Labour as the party of the Left in 1982, Tony stood for Labour in the Beaconsfield by-election, an unwinnable Tory seat. But while cutting his political teeth, he failed to impress Shirley Williams who had defected from Labour to help found the SDP.

"This young man will never go very far in the Labour Party," she remarked.

Against the odds he was selected for the safe Labour seat of Sedgefield in Co Durham - which he won at the 1983 election.

Neil Kinnock spotted his talents and made him the party's City spokesman and from that moment there was no stopping him.

Shadow Employment Secretary and then Shadow Home Secretary - where he coined the famous "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" slogan - made him a household name and had him being talked about as a future party leader.

But at that time the leadership prospect was years away and Tony had time on his hands.

The reform of the Labour Party started by Neil Kinnock with Tony's support and continued by John Smith were beginning to make Labour electable again.

John Smith would certainly be Prime Minister today had a final and fatal heart attack not snuffed out his chances.

Within hours, Westminster was buzzing with the question whether it would be Tony Blair or his modernising friend of the same age, Gordon Brown, who would chuck their hats into the ring.

The pair decided that Tony Blair had the better chance of winning against Margaret Beckett and John Prescott.

After victory, Tony flanked himself with two trusted advisers and friends - MP Peter Mandelson and former Daily Mirror Political Editor Alastair Campbell - who began the process of packaging him and the Labour Party like soap powder to make both appeal to voters.

Labour's traditional Clause Four commitment to public ownership was dumped - at Campbell's suggestion - and the Labour Party was turned on its head to become New Labour.

It was the end of Labour as a socialist party but the beginning of an electable force of the Centre Left.

"The old days of tax and spend are over," Tony declared. "New Labour is real and here to stay."

And the rest is history. With a lot of chapters yet to run.
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Author:Nelson, Nigel
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:May 4, 1997
Words:1074
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