UK Politics

More Blair.

In today’s Times there are two further pieces about Tony Blair’s conference speech (full text here) on Tuesday. Matthew Parris admits to having been “held spellbound” for the duration of the speech, but says that once the performance was over the magic soon wore off:

When we were children, grown-ups took us to matinée performances at the cinema. Inside, all was dark. We forgot the daylight and dust, the afternoon sun slanting down on a world of school, and homework, and things that didn’t always go right. Here in the soft darkness of a transfigured night, things seemed to glow. We suspended disbelief and watched the silver screen, and were taken into a simpler world: of heroes and villains, of magic, mischief and happy endings. From our seats in the dark the screen shone, our matinée idols shone, meanings were clear, and every story had a conclusion.

For one glorious hour on Tuesday the Prime Minister took (the) stage and held us spellbound…Now in the hard afternoon light as I write, I have the text with me. But I no longer have the speech. Such stuff as dreams are made on, it has melted into air, into thin air; and all that remains is a crumpled text, staples adrift, paragraphs suddenly prosaic, sentiments cheesy. Scrawled into the margins are my notes: the dodged incovenient truths, the twisted logic, the hilarious non-sequiturs, the winking falsehoods. This dog-eared thing is not the speech that everyone in that darkened space will remember for the rest of our lives.

A more generous Mary Ann Sieghart considers why after 12 years as party leader Blair still has the ability to charm even the most hardbitten critics (and David Miliband):

Having just emerged from the hall, with dewy eyes and a soppy smile on his face, the young Environment Secretary, David Miliband, was asked what he thought of Tony Blair’s last party conference speech. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to pull himself together. “I feel like a girl who’s just been to her first rock concert”. That was how most delegates – even critics of Blair – felt on Tuesday. “Brilliant!”, “fantastic!”, “amazing!” were all they could say about this mesmeric performance. And not far below was an undercurrent of guilt and shame. “What have we done?” they were asking themselves…For none of the leadership contenders, Gordon Brown included, has Blair’s extraordinary gift of being able to convert people to his cause. Conservative-inclined journalists admitted to me after the speech that they were swept away by his arguments and had to shake themselves to try to remember why it was that they used to hold a different view.

So what is it about Blair that makes him such a great communicator? Even people determined to dislike him usually find it hard to do so when they meet him in person. He has charm, a light touch and a good sense of humour. And he has a barrister’s ability to argue a persuasive case. But there is more, too. What makes Blair more likeable than most politicians…is that, inside, he is quite at peace with himself. He is not suppressing a roiling cauldron of negative emotions, that toxic mix of insecurity, frustration and anger that many of his colleagues display. Gordon Brown comes across as Mr Angry. He can’t contain his frustration. You can see him biting his lip, biting his nails, frowning and scowling. John Prescott is the same. Smiling is as alien to him as using the subjunctive…

Ouch. “We tend”, says Sieghart”, “not to like politicians who are bitter and twisted. They make us feel uncomfortable – because they are so uncomfortable in themselves. We prefer people who are, as the French say, bien dans sa peau“. I think there’s something in this, but then, being assez bien dans ma peau, I suppose I would do. But if you look back over US presidential elections, you’d have to go a long way – perhaps as far back as Richard Nixon – to find the last time a Mr Angry was the winner (tip for Democrats: no more Howard Deans). In the UK, the more popular politicians – the Mo Mowlams and the Ken Livingstones – tend to be those who come across as at ease with themselves, as opposed to, say, Jeffrey Archer, who tried to create the same impression, but whose mask would always slip. David Cameron is of course about as bien dans sa peau as it’s possible to be, short of being a cat, but on the Labour side once Blair leaves, the front benches won’t exactly overflowing with this kind of Clintonesque bonhomous ease. Alan Johnson’s showing promising signs though. Assuming that Gordon Brown becomes Labour leader, Johnson would have my vote as deputy, if I had a vote that is.