Last year, after Tony Blair's Labour Party conference speech, we said one or two nasty things about it. To be honest, it was tempting to cut and paste them here again this year. Tony did pretty much the same thing with his conference speech this week and *he* seems to have got away with it.
So, let's get the perennially obvious out of the way first. Here's the checklist of vital ingredients for a Blair conference speech as we've wearily come to expect them.
The. Halting. Delivery. Like a. Camp. William. Shatner. So that. Journalists. Can record. His. Every. Word. For. Posterity.
The strange, verbless sentences. Elevated to tedious cliché. Used again. This year. Oh, God. Again.
The weird make-up that makes him look like Data the android from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation’, only not as lifelike.
Admit it, when it comes to the battle of presentation against content, Tony’s always been more Lionel Blair than Eric Arthur Blair.
Let’s cut to the chase here, though. If you’re looking for honesty and a cold, invigorating blast of reality, the Labour Party conferences of the Blair era are the last place you’d go looking for them. You’d have more luck watching 'My Parents Are Aliens’. It’s interesting to note that no banners with dissenting messages were displayed in the conference hall but those delegates carrying banners with 'TOO YOUNG TO RETIRE’ and 'THANK YOU’ on them (all mysteriously written in the same funny swirly lettering) slipped through security unmolested.
The only time the carefully constructed façade slipped was when Cherie Blair accused Gordon Brown of being a liar after the Chancellor had said what a privilege it had been to work with Tony. Like someone saying out loud at a party 'this is crap, they’re all wankers’ just as the music stops. It also says something about Cherie’s perceived trustworthiness that her piss-poor attempts at damage limitation (she claims to have said 'let me by,’ not 'that’s a lie’) were contemptuously tossed back in her face by even the most usually sycophantic journalists. They treated her as they would a four year-old who, despite having chocolate around her mouth, is denying raiding the biscuit tin.
Still, Cherie should know a liar when she sees and hears one, having had the unrivalled opportunity to have observed one of the best, close up, for most of her adult life. Psychologists and makers of documentaries with overly literal titles for Channel 4 ('The Lying Man Who Lied A Lot', maybe?) must be dying with envy. The deceptions, misdirections and misrepresentations made in Blair’s speech needn’t be rehashed here - Channel 4 News has already done a bang up job for us.
It makes you wonder what the Blairs' home life must be like. For starters, and far more than any other woman, Cherie must dread asking her partner, 'Do I look fat in this?’ before a big night out. If he says 'No’ and she later catches herself in an unflattering mirror, he probably says, 'Well, on the existing intelligence you looked fine. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me. What do I do? Say "I've got the intelligence but I've a hunch it’s wrong?" Have another cake and come and meet the Afghan president.’ Tony’s inability or unwillingness to distinguish between a donation and a loan must have his bank manager sweating bullets as well.
(You also hope that the whole WMD intelligence cock-up has introduced a degree of paranoia into Tony's personal life. After experiencing a debacle of that magnitude, how could you trust anything? Bet he checks the start time in triplicate before setting out for the pictures. Imagine the sweaty paroxysm of retrospective anxiety he’ll experience if he’s ever asked to supervise the village fete's treasure hunt when he retires.)
It goes without saying that, this being his last speech before leaving for his twilight years of lucrative non-executive directorships and lobbying for arms manufacturers, he was always going to accentuate the positive. More valedictory than humble or apologetic. 'Me Tarzan’ rather than 'Mea Culpa’. The only policy he admitted had received any criticism was tax credits which happens to be Gordon Brown’s baby, naturally. Iraq got just two passing mentions in a speech lasting nearly an hour. So much for democracy being one of Britain’s finest exports under New Labour. There was certainly no mention of the mountains of corpses currently turning up in Baghdad showing signs of having been tortured with drills or the UN report that says human rights in Iraq are in a worse state than under Saddam.
'The USP of New Labour is aspiration and compassion reconciled,’ said Blair. Just in case you don’t think talking like an estate agent is cool, USP is 'Unique Selling Point’. You wonder what the innocent terrorist suspect languishing on remand for two years makes of that. Or the asylum seekers with small children having their doors kicked in at dawn by Home Office officials. Or the ones finding themselves equipped with flak jackets and helmets and bundled onto planes back to Iraq. Unless, of course, there was an implicit xenophobia in his speech and the people 'in poverty and need’ that New Labour reach out to in Britain must be registered voters. ('Our core vote is the country’, Blair said, despite only 22% of it getting off their arses to vote for New Labour at the last election.) Charity doesn’t necessarily begin at home: the 'showing an African life is worth as much as a Western one’ that Blair called for doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re, say, an Algerian terrorist suspect being repatriated to an uncertain, and possibly bloodily short, future.
When he had to list trinkets such as the right to roam, free museum entry and winning the Olympics for London, you got the feeling Blair was stretching for achievements to boast about. And with both Iraq and Afghanistan currently off limits, tax credits something of a nightmare for many of their recipients and figures on child poverty and the like - we’ll be generous - open to interpretation, it was clearly quite a struggle.
The first thing Tony’s fans always bang on about when questioned on what he’s done for us is his ability to win elections, as if power were an end in itself. He confirmed as much in his speech when he said: 'We abandoned the ridiculous, self-imposed dilemma between principle and power’. Which translates as, 'we abandoned one to achieve the other’. He said, 'If I'd stood in 1997 on the policies of 1987 I would have lost’ (notice the 'I’) and then he went on to slag off the Tories for looking for policies to get them re-elected. For Christ’s sake, Tony, have you heard yourself? You sound like Jodie Marsh when she said, 'I've got much more style than Jordan. I don't just go out in a bra and knickers and I don't think I dress like a tart’.
Which is why New Labour, led by a product of Britain’s elite establishments (Fettes, Oxford and the Bar) sound so ridiculous attacking David Cameron for being an old-Etonian chameleon, The thing is, as has been said before, Blair is not One Of Us, or at least the vast majority of Us. He isn’t any more able to Feel Our Pain than Cameron.
His tribute to John Prescott made that clear. 'I may have taken
New Labour to the country but it was you that helped me take it to the Party, so thank you,’ Blair said to Prescott. It took a pie-faced, secretary-shagging boor to sell the New Labour brand to the party of the working class. The Deputy Prime Minister, said Blair, was the author of 'traditional values in a modern setting’. Whatever that might mean. Comedian Jeremy Hardy thought it meant 'shafting the workers in their own accent’. You can’t help feeling insulted if you have to have your views and politics represented by someone like Prescott. It’s as if aliens landed on Earth and we sent Chris Moyles to represent humanity.
But still, there we have it. Octobers will never be the same again for fizzy-knickered and intellectually disengaged conference delegates or political pundits and writers of weekly email comment sheets. We’ll miss him, in much the same way we miss Thatcher. Tony Blair is a laughable, almost pitiable figure despite having been one of the planet’s most dangerous men. We genuinely hope that when he retires, he gets the help he so obviously needs. He’s a bit like a harmless and eccentric uncle who one day discovers a previously unrealised love for Scotch and handguns - you have an affection for him but don’t want to be anywhere near when he’s in one of his moods.
Mind you, we’ll all be crying for Tony if John Reid becomes PM. Now, did you see *his* speech...?