Nobody can doubt that Tony Blair has exhibited extraordinary skill during his time in office since 1 May 1997 - maintaining a strong parliamentary majority even after re-election in 2001 and 2005, holding together a party not known for its internal cohesion, facing down a constant challenge to his leadership from Gordon Brown, and all the while conducting an unpopular war and confronting the growing threat of Islamist terrorism on British soil.
He has made an impression as strong as that made by Margaret Thatcher and, like her, is relinquishing his post (scheduled for 2007, though at a moment still not specified) not because the people have risen against him, but because he has been stabbed in the back by his rivals. Any assessment of his time in office ought to begin by recognising that the Labour Party has never had such a leader - one capable of winning successive elections, and maintaining his party's unity while reshaping it to fit the mould of democratic capitalism.
Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. His most recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005) and News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006)
Also by Roger Scruton in openDemocracy:
"Tony Blair and the wrong America" (29 April 2004)
"The hunting debate: a question of democracy" (17 September 2004)
"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)
"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)
Much of this has been achieved by spin - a new force in democratic politics that Blair has made his own. But the spin has worked.
The British people still believe that the Labour Party is less corrupt than the Conservative opposition, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (The questioning of the prime minister and his senior aides over the relationship between donations to the party and the distribution of honours, and the government's halting of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into possible bribery attending the al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, are but the latest indications of the culture at the heart of Blair's government).
The British people still think that the Labour Party is the friend of the health service, of the education system and of the social services, despite the fact that all three are in a state of near collapse.
The British people have been prepared to give the Labour Party the benefit of the doubt in those matters which caused their former suspicion - immigration, policing and defence - even though all are attended by serious and evident policy failures.
I think Blair deserves the greatest credit for this. He has replaced real politics with a carefully crafted fiction, a kind of postmodern holograph, in which unreal issues occupy the stage, while the country wobbles unguided to its fate.
It took genius to ensure that at a time when the country was being taken into a wholly new kind of pre-emptive war, the matter would be discussed in parliament for only eighteen hours, all attention being captured by the 220 hours devoted to the issue of fox-hunting.
It was a further stroke of genius to persuade the British people that reform of the House of Lords was necessary in order to democratise our constitution, and then to fill the upper chamber of parliament with a collection of appointed cronies.
And it was with a deft sense of stagecraft that Blair was able to personify a bereaved nation at the death of Princess Diana, to make it appear that this was the greatest spiritual crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII, and to pose as the rightful successor to the fairy crown worn by the late princess.
In these and many other ways Blair has entirely changed the style of British politics. And his success is evident in the fact that the Conservative Party leader David Cameron is now striving to imitate him, conjuring up his own Disneyland visions with which to tempt the British people.
The only problem is that serious matters are looming on the horizon: the imminent implosion of Europe, the Islamist threat, the rise of English nationalism, and a host of other matters that have been driven off the agenda. But then, it is only further proof of Blair's genius that he knows when it is best to step down.
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