By Patrick Rogers
April 15, 1996 12:00 PM

IN 1974, BRITISH COLLEGE STUDENT Tony Blair walked into an Oxford University dorm room to audition for a rock band, the Ugly Rumours. “What we really needed was a front man,” recalls bass player Mark Ellen, now a London editor. Blair, it turned out, was perfect. The shaggy-haired undergrad had all the necessary assets for an aspiring 70s rocker: a bright smile, even brighter red trousers and a few Jagger-esque stage mannerisms. In a break with Rumours tradition, Blair had even managed to learn the lyrics of the songs they performed. “For us, rehearsals had been about getting together with a six-pack,” says Ellen. “But Tony thought there was no point in being in a band unless it was good.”

Blair, now 42, may have traded red pants for pinstripes years ago, but his enduring perfectionism has helped propel him toward the top of British politics as the youngest-ever leader of the opposition Labour party. In less than two years he has thoroughly reshaped Labour, which hasn’t won a general election in 22 years, by stripping away the trappings of its socialist past to attract middle-class voters. Many Britons like what they see. According to political experts, if an election were held today (though none is required until next year) the athletic Blair would handily topple Tory Prime Minister John Major, who has governed since Margaret Thatcher stepped down in 1990. Indeed, Thatcher herself, now a baroness but still the high priestess of Conservative politics, has conceded that, as an opponent, Blair “is probably the most formidable” Labour has fielded in 30 years. Said Blair: “The party’s not worth leading unless it’s leading to government.”

On April 10, Blair begins a three-day U.S. visit that should raise his profile on this side of the Atlantic. After meetings in New York City—and, if time allows, an “absolutely essential” stop at F.A.O. Schwarz to buy toys for his children Euan, 12, Nicky, 10, and Kathryn, 8—Blair will travel to Washington for a White House chat with Bill Clinton, a politician to whom he bears some similarities. Like Clinton, who ran for the White House in 1992 as a “new Democrat,” Blair is a liberal who campaigns on traditionally conservative turf: He’s tough on crime, wants to put welfare recipients to work, touts a free-market economy and emphasizes individual responsibility. “The aim is to offer people a deal,” says Blair. “We will help construct a community that is worth living in, but in return you’ve got to take the chances given to you. Opportunity and responsibility go together.”

Comparisons with the U.S. President don’t stop there. Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth, 41, is one of London’s top trial lawyers. Not unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, she was the family breadwinner while her husband rose to prominence in politics. And Blair’s critics, like Clinton’s detractors, often impugn the sincerity of his move to the center. Conservatives have called him everything from a hopelessly naive “Bambi” to a despotic “Stalin”—leading Blair to quip last October, “From Disneyland to dictatorship in 12 short months. I’m not sure which one I prefer.”

Officially, though, he is the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. Born in Edinburgh in 1953, Blair spent his early years in middle-class comfort, until misfortune struck when he was 10 years old. His father, attorney Leo Blair, now 72, had relocated the family—Tony, Bill, 45, Sarah, 39, and their mother, Hazel, a homemaker—to Durham, in England, where Leo, preparing to run for Parliament as a Conservative, suffered a massive stroke. “Suddenly, instead of new clothes for school, they had hand-me-downs,” Says Jon Sopel, author of Tony Blair: The Moderniser, of Leo’s three-year recovery. “It opened Blair’s eyes to [living conditions on] the other side.”

Blair continued his privileged education but now on a partial scholarship to Fettes College boarding school in Edinburgh, sometimes called “Eton in a kilt.” In 1972 he won a spot at Oxford, where he lived on a typical undergraduate diet of books, booze and rock and roll. “I generally enjoyed myself,” he says, admitting that, except for attending two rallies against the neo-fascist National Front, he was still a stranger to politics. “I only set foot in the Oxford Union, the main political organization, once,” he says, and then “probably because of someone I wanted to date.”

But Blair’s life abruptly turned serious again in 1975. Two weeks after he graduated from St. John’s College, Oxford, his mother died of throat cancer at 52. “It knocked the socks off Tony,” said Peter Thomson, an Australian theology graduate student who had introduced Blair to communitarianism, a fusion of Christian and socialist ideas for building a more compassionate society. (Under Thomson’s influence, Blair was confirmed in the Anglican Church at Oxford and has remained a devout churchgoer since.)

With a renewed sense of purpose, Blair headed to London, became active in the Labour Party and studied law, in the British tradition, with a practicing senior attorney, who had another, more promising pupil—a brilliant London School of Economics graduate from Liverpool, Cherie Booth. Over cups of coffee and trips to the Tate Gallery, Blair and Booth fell in love. Booth, who married Blair in 1980, also had a passion for politics, but after one unsuccessful run for office, she stuck to law and was eventually appointed a Queen’s Counsel (an elite honorary title) in 1995. Her success allowed the couple to buy a $600,000 house in the swank Islington section of north London. When recently asked whether she would quit her $375,000-a-year job if her husband became Prime Minister, Booth replied, “Can you tell me one good reason why I should?”

Blair won a seat in Parliament in 1983, just as Labour was entering a deep crisis. In the general election that year, the party saw its numbers in the 650-seat House of Commons slip to a postwar low of 209. Equally discouraging to Blair was the attitude of party members, more interested in pleasing the trade unions than the public. “They were actually antipopulist,” he says. “They had a motto: ‘No compromise for the electorate.’ ” Together with a handful of other moderate reformers, Blair was determined to trim union clout.

That chance arrived unexpectedly in May 1994 when Labour chief John Smith suddenly died of a heart attack. Blair immediately put his name forward and was voted in by the membership, even though his close colleague, fellow reformer Gordon Brown, was Smith’s heir apparent. Afterward, critics on both sides of the Atlantic saw Blair as little more than a bumptious opportunist. As The New Republic acidly remarked last year, “Blair decided that destiny trumped friendship.” (He and Brown, in fact, remain friends, and Brown is a top-ranking party official.) Later that year, Blair, under the banner of New Labour, proposed killing off one of its sacred cows—Clause IV of the party constitution, which symbolically committed Labour to socialist economics. Nervously, Blair and his staff rewrote his speech 25 times before proposing the change at the annual party conference in Blackpool, but when he finished speaking, the audience rose in a standing ovation.

British Tories, of course, have derided Blair’s call to make England “a young country again” by redistributing spending for education and promoting new technologies. Said former Conservative Party chairman Jeremy Hanley: “Tony Blair has been anointed Labour leader on his looks, not his policies. He is all style and no substance.”

Whatever his appeal, Blair is besieged by well-wishers, even during regular Saturday morning shopping trips with his children. “Cherie and I are interested in cinema, theater [and] art, but we don’t get much time for it anymore,” he says. Blair keeps the CD player stacked with the latest from R.E.M., Annie Lennox and Guns N’ Roses, and still picks up his acoustic guitar. But don’t look for a sudden reunion of the Ugly Rumours once he hits the campaign trail. “We weren’t very good,” said Blair, “and if you played any recordings, we’d lose the election.”

PATRICK ROGERS

LYDIA DENWORTH in London

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