To watch Tony Blair at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on Monday night was to be reminded that nobody is better at delivering a certain kind of speech. The actual language is unremarkable, and so is the delivery, and so are the jokes. We do not feel ourselves to be in the presence of Demosthenes, or Oscar Wilde, or Lloyd George. When Mr Blair reaches some passage which he tries, by a catch in his voice, to invest with emotion, he sounds callow. But these defects, or limitations, help him avoid the far more dangerous error of sounding superior. The Prime Minister’s charm, his natural good manners, save him from any hint of superiority or condescension. But more than that, he is brilliant at giving comfort and reassurance to his listeners, and especially to listeners who might be expected, as at Guildhall, to incline towards the Conservative party. Mr Blair is leader of the Labour party, but here he is, for the sixth year running, wearing a white tie: what could be more reassuring than that, or more demonstrative of his respect for his hosts? ‘When I look at Tony Blair, I know he’s not going to expropriate me,’ as one Conservative lady is in the habit of saying – this being the fear that Labour politicians always used to provoke in her.
Mr Blair began his speech by telling some amusing stories about the visits of previous prime ministers, namely Pitt the Younger, Lord Melbourne and the Duke of Wellington, to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Here was further reassurance for any listener of a conservative disposition. He plainly is a man who respects and delights in the past. A mood had by now been established in which the Prime Minister was accepted as one of us.
Mr Blair then turned, in a speech lasting a mere 20 minutes and 23 seconds (they will bet on anything in the City, including the length of a speech), to the future. He warned his fellow diners, though not quite in so many words, that they may be about to be blown to smithereens by an al-Qa’eda bomb. ‘He’s buttering them up because they’re the most likely to get hit, you know,’ one observer commented. It is certainly prudent of Mr Blair to place this warning on record, lest London succeed Bali and the World Trade Center as the scene of an atrocious attack. But on Monday night the horrific danger posed by terrorism encouraged a feeling of togetherness. We, Mr Blair suggested, stand for ‘freedom, justice and tolerance’, while the hostility towards us from our poor, benighted enemies can only be explained by their ‘ignorance of our true motives and values’. The certainties of the Cold War have vanished, but our Prime Minister is on hand to lead all men of good will in ‘a unified international community’ which will prove ‘the surest way to confront these dangers’.
A woman who watched Mr Blair speak said, ‘He’s a nice bloke and he’s got a nice wife. Basically he’s a nice bloke.’ This is also what his old friends, from the time before he became famous, say about him. He’s a nice fellow, and except on those rare occasions when he starts off on the wrong foot – as when he tried to use a speech to the Women’s Institute for political advantage – he is brilliant at communicating this niceness to his listeners, especially to women. This is a huge political advantage, and one which male commentators tend to undervalue. However irritating we may find his performances (and I for one find his simpering manner almost unbearable), we are not going to get anywhere by suggesting he is a nasty man. Such attacks simply rebound, as the Conservative party has realised, on the attacker.
The Conservatives have to accept the honesty of Mr Blair’s intentions. When he says, as he did in an article in last Sunday’s Observer, that he wants to restore ‘respect’, including ‘respect for property which means not tolerating mindless vandalism, theft and graffiti’, we have to get beyond our irritation with his tone of voice, including irritation with his claim that ‘crime and antisocial behaviour is a Labour issue’. He may use the word ‘respect’ instead of the word ‘authority’, but he is at least making an effort in the right direction: another aspect of his ability to pay graceful compliments to the Tory tradition. We can certainly agree with him that crime is a very severe problem which tends to affect the poor worst, because they cannot afford to move away from lawless areas.
Mr Blair claims: ‘We are putting behind us the narrow, selfish individualism of the 1980s, but also the 1945