Friday, May 11, 2007

Tony and me

And so where were you on that bright May morning in 1997 when all those Tory hate figures like Michael Portillo and Michael Forsyth were buried by the Blair landslide. Bliss it was..etc, (turn to page 94). We’ve been forced to relive those moments so often during Tony Blair’s long good-bye, that it’s all becoming a little sick-making.

And anyway, how do we really know he’s gone? I’ve been writing political obituaries of Tony Blair since 2004, and he still hasn’t actually left office yet. Until the last nail is driven into his political coffin, I reserve judgement. Even if he goes on a gap year to Africa to do the mission thing, he might still come back hoping that the nation and his party will realise its mistake and demand his return. Don’t laugh, Alex Salmond did it.

And no, I don’t bear him any personal animosity. I’ve always found that I couldn’t help liking Tony Blair, even as I loathed what he was doing to our political culture. The first time I really got to know him was back in the 1992 Labour conference when, as a journalistic assignment, I elected to follow this interesting but still largely obscure shadow minister around the Labour Party conference fringe. It was an extraordinary experience.

Blair pursued this like a military campaign. He would speak at three fringe meetings in each lunchtime. It was all talk and go, but the amazing thing was that they all seemed to love him for it. He would segue seamlessly from the Police Federation to the civil liberties campaigners and charm both of them equally. Trades unionists were a pushover, and business groups saw someone they could, well, do business with.

Blair’s great asset was his likability. He talked a lot of platitudes, about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime; about governing in the interest of the many rather than the few; about reconciling social justice and economic efficiency - but we weren’t really listening to the words. Blair was like one of those people at school who for no obvious reason were just hugely popular - everyone wanted to be around him. He made people feel good about themselves.

I was as susceptible as anyone, and while our relationship has never exactly flourished, I have always found him immensely personable. The last time I spoke to Tony Blair was during a dark rainy night in February, when I and a group of journalists were invited to a country house hotel in Erskine to break bread with the Prime Minister and talk about the Scottish election campaign. He bounded in, with the same old expression of slightly dizzy resignation his face which seemed to say: ‘Hey, we all know this politics business is kind of ridiculous, but let’s all try to get through it as best we can”.

The PM looked immensely fit and lively, and talked absolute unalloyed nonsense about the Scottish election . But the warmth in the room was unmistakable. The greatest conman in political history he may have been, but the secret of successful confidence trickery is the realisation that people really like to be conned. They want to have their naive beliefs validated; to think that pigs really can fly, if there is a leader around with sufficient determination to get pork airborne.

Blair used his personal plausibility to extraordinary effect. From that very first moment when he announced that everyone accepted that he was a “pretty straight kind of guy” after the Bernie Ecclestone bung back in 1998, to his back-to-the-wall encounters with furious British public in the 2005 general election. Alistair Campbell devised the so-called “masochism strategy” to deal with political unpopularity, which involved getting Tony Blair to confront as many angry critics as possible, preferably on camera, to show how difficult it was for them not to like him.

The supreme achievement of the Great Persuader was the Iraq war. Only Tony Blair could have faced down two of the biggest parliamentary rebellions since Irish Home Rule, and persuaded MPs to go to war on the basis of an intelligence “dossier” that had been downloaded from a PhD thesis on the internet. The Commons in February 2003 suspended disbelief, and voted for the most costly foreign policy disaster in post war British history with their eyes wide shut. They simply wanted to believe that Tony knew what he was doing.

The Prime Minister charmed the country’s newspaper editors as easily as he charmed parliament. They don’t like to admit it now, but back in 2003 the press actually believed that we could walk into an Muslim country, bomb the capital, lock up the government, grab the oil and then sit around in the sun while Iraq turned into a beacon of democracy. Some people still believe even today. In fact, Alistair Campbell seems to think that’s what really did happen.

The bigger the lie, the more people want to believe, that was the great discovery of the 20th Century totalitarians, and in a small way, Tony Blair has confirmed the thesis. If the people love you enough, you can say almost anything and enough of them will believe. It’s not just PR - as Gordon Brown is finding out - the spin is only as good as the spinner.

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