“Conference time, it’s a helluva time,” Frank Sinatra would surely not have sung, had he seen the Eds Balls and Miliband turning on the style at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester this week. Labour are ten points up in the polls and looking to push on, but those same polls point to the party’s greatest problem: their leader.
Despite the speech he made that got Guardian journalists all frothy earlier this week (he did it without notes!!!!1!), the public still don’t seem to think that Ed can be trusted to make tough decisions. They don’t think he has a clear vision of the country’s future and they don’t think he’s trustworthy. In Manchester, the ghost of the man who used to dominate the polls stalks the halls, the ghost of the man who knew how to win elections; the mad, grinning ghost of Tony Blair.
How did it happen? For ten years, the UK’s answer to Clinton ran, walked and then crawled through the British consciousness as our leader. Now, Blair has become the ex you can’t believe you went out with. All the things you found charming about him you now find repellent. What seemed so natural now seems robotic. You think about all those golden nights, those nights he made you feel so good, and you throw up all over yourself. How was he prime minister for ten years?
It’s particularly odd given the creature Blair has become since. He’s now a perma-tanned cipher crawling across the international stage, his skin stretched ever tighter across his face, his Cheshire cat mouth fraying at the edges. He’s drifting aimlessly around the world, talking about peace while picking up massive cheques from a slew of corporate sponsors. The latest Blair news – from revered political authority, Lorraine Kelly, no less – suggested that Labour should be bringing the Messiah back, not just in his new Labour Party role as Sports Advisor, but in his old Labour Party role as Supreme Leader.
In the article, our Lorraine gushes over the above photo, calling Blair “statesmanlike” and Cherie “elegant”. I mean, I realise everyone looks good next to Ed Miliband, a man who struggles to resemble a human being, but “statesmanlike”? “Elegant”? I would have thought “reptilian” and “deranged” were more on-point when describing the creature Blair and his dragon bride. Or “wizened corporate shill and drunken aunt at a bad wedding”.
Less recently, but still within spitting distance of relevancy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu pulled out of a leadership summit in Johannesburg because he couldn’t stand the thought of sharing a platform with/being near Blair.
For the Archbishop, Blair’s support of the Iraq war was “morally indefensible”, which meant speaking alongside him had about as much appeal as spending the weekend with a bunch of Telegraph readers from Surrey, determined to tell him that, “Well, you know, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.” (Hi, Reverend Peter Mullen!) Blair’s office, terrified of saying anything negative about a man who has more moral authority than Amnesty International and Jesus combined, suggested that their man’s decision to go crusading in Iraq was not an easy one to make, “morally or politically”.
It’s that kind of smooth deflection that made Blair such an enormously successful politician. He stayed at the top for a decade and that, along with his continued existence, needs to be explained. How did he do it? Who is he? Wherefore art thou, Blair?
THE NORMAL BLOKE
The neutral accent, the kick-ups in the playground, the fact that he hung out with bad boy John Prescott: Blair knew how to play the normal bloke game. How to explain then, that, as his former Hackney South Labour party comrade John Lloyd once said, he still "thinks he’s exceptional”? It was always, as it is with the majority of politicians, an act. He could eat pickled eggs and drink pints with the lads while professing a love of Newcastle United, before jetting off to drink snake venom cocktails in Riyadh with some British arms dealers. In the end, and his memoir My Journey revealed this, Blair had an Obama-like reverence for his own gifts and a cool conception of the historical movements that allowed him to seize hold of the Labour Party, change it from a socialist party into a social democratic party, and in the process win the day for Team Blair (Campbell, Mandy, Prezzer, God).
My Journey also shows that, like Obama, he is one of the first politicians to look at their career trajectory and say: “I’m really quite a specimen, aren’t I?” like a tween telling a studio audience they’re beautiful and that they have a great singing voice. He’s all about a bit of pop psychology, a bit of Richard & Judy style self-examination. He told his readers he’d let them know “what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history”, while also telling them that he, “likes to have time and comfort on the loo.” Blair looks into your eyes and says, “You could be me, I could be you”, before turning around and whispering “But of course, you couldn’t really be me. That would be ridiculous. Now, where’s my fur-lined loo?”
You want to know how he got into power and stayed there for so long? Take a look at the idiots he was up against. The Tories spent the 90s in a pit of sleaze. David Mellor sucking the toes of a woman who wasn’t his wife while wearing a Chelsea shirt (Chelsea – surely the scummiest football team). The fact that John Major and Edwina Currie had a four-year long affair – a story that called to mind images of your weird, boring, yet married uncle somehow revealing, at a family dinner, that he’d been fucking his shrill cousin. Jonathan Aitken’s perjury. The existence of Jeffrey Archer. Cash-for-questions. It goes on and on.
Once Blair got in – and how could he not against Major, the greyest man in history (although I’m sure I'm not the only one who has a weird fondness for the cricket-loving anomaly from Brixton)? – the calibre of his opposition got no better. William Hague, the weird, bald Benjamin Button baby in a baseball cap who claimed he used to down 12 pints a night, Iain Duncan Smith, the quiet military man who didn’t attack Blair over Iraq or make it to the next election, and Michael Howard, whose campaign slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” prompted a collective: “That we drown this old woman in a lake?” A semi-rehabilitated murderer could have won, running against this menagerie of human failure.
It was, as George Hull pointed out in The Economist, the great connector’s great phrase. Here it is, used in a 1999 speech on public service reform: “You try getting change – you know – in the public sector and public services, and – you know – I bear the scars on my back.” Mid-sentence, the phrase seems involuntary and hesitant when, of course, it was about as involuntary and hesitant as anything Blair did (i.e. not at all).
In the same way that posh people call taxi drivers and plumbers "mate", the phrase shows the world that Blair is the ordinary, committed man, working hard against an incomprehensible system that thinks nothing of scratching his back till it bleeds and eventually scars. He is brought closer to the average man and woman by the limits of his expression, limits that necessitate the use of “you know”. Once his audience is comfortable that he is, as they are, just a bumbling rhetorical failure, ol' Tone seals the deal by appealing to their understanding of his scar-inducing plight. “You know how it is, British people…” And for ten long years, they sure did.
Not always a reality, but always a state of mind. After all, here he is with Noel. He may be wearing a tie, but Noel isn’t and Tony’s eyes say, “Let’s get outta here, I’ll take this symbol of oppression off and we’ll go smoke a J.” Stuffiness was for accountants, not Prime Ministers. Tony dreamt of a world in which everyone dressed like pioneering British foreign correspondents and all government memos were written in “real English”. Reading the lyrics to Pulp’s brilliant “Cocaine Socialism”, you can’t help but think of Blair, the cool dad with his electric guitar, jamming in the name of the Lord with a bunch of celebrity pals on the Number 10 payroll.
Oh look, Bill Clinton’s popped by for a Baby Boomer mash-up, an age-of-affluence hoedown – Bill on Sax, Tone on the sweet axe. Both rolling ties off.
Despite having what must have been an army of stylists and image consultants, all of whom would have "had words" with him about the giant patches of sweat he consistently produced, Blair liked nothing more than to put on a light blue shirt and appear in public looking as though he'd just done 12 rounds with a garden hose. Normally, at party conferences or public events, this was ridiculed and seemed embarrassing, like Tony was the anti-Gatsby; a try-hard who didn't know everyone was laughing at him and who probably smelt bad.
But perhaps that was the point. There he was, grinding it out, working hard for the country. This was never more calculated than in his appearances with troops in Iraq, where he'd show up in an open shirt with his sleeves rolled up, pressing the flesh and, you guessed it, sweating hard for Our Boys on the frontline.
THE POWER, THE RELIGION, THE AMBITION
Of his disastrous decision to take the UK into the war in Iraq, Blair said that he was convinced that it was the right move and that, even if he had been in a “minority of one”, he would have gone ahead and done it anyway. That the democratically elected leader of a country, a man employed to try to do things that will please the majority of the country, can say that with a straight face seems not just odd, but strangely psychopathic.
Blair, that famous Christian, imagines standing in the water on the shores of the Galilee, telling the working classes to come and join him and his G&T-drinking cohorts not in the barren desert of socialism, but in the warm, soft uplands of the centre-ground. Don’t worry, he says, for I am Blair and I say unto you on this day, that you should forsake your cause to come join me for a glass of claret.
Like a permanently horny rat, or a cockroach intent on breeding, Blair could always escape from the political sewer. Nothing ever stuck to “Teflon Tony”. He had the speech-making skills of Hitler and the election-winning skills of Thatcher. He knew that he had to keep Gordon Brown close or the divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites, two houses both alike in lack of dignity, would destroy the Party. So Brown became the caged Alsatian, promised a large bowl of meat for so long that, when he actually got it, he choked to death on the gristle.
Blair knew the “weird”, “maddening” Brown (his words) didn’t have the social wherewithal to be a good PM, so he played the ultimate, selfish-guy trick: he kept power for as long as he could, then let Brown fuck it all up, which led to a re-appraisal of and longing for – who? – Blair. This kind of self-serving Machiavellianism was, as Tony once told his aides, “why I’m leader and you’re not”. He did to the country what he did to Cherie:
"That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct," Blair, My Journey.
And yet Tony endures. Disliked widely, hated even, dismissed by the wisest old man on the planet, but still around, still smiling and slinking across the globe, haunting awkward Ed with his glorious history of election victories. This is the dark night for Ed, because, of course, he knows that, in spite of being a war criminal, in spite of writing a memoir full of clichés and horrifying sex scenes, in spite of being the embarrassing baby boomer dad at his kid’s party, Tony Blair knew how to win an election and he quite probably doesn’t.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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