I am summoned to No. 10 for a one-on-one with the Prime Minister. These ‘landscape chats’, as his spin doctors call them, are, of course, strictly off the record. But I don’t think I am breaking a confidence in revealing that, as we sit on the terrace outside the Cabinet room, I witness a seriously tribal side to Mr Blair which has been obscured in previous encounters. Making small talk about football, I mention that my father played for Newcastle United in his youth. The effect of this revelation upon the First Lord of the Treasury – a lifelong Toon fan – is nothing short of electric. It is as if I have employed some esoteric Masonic handshake. ‘I had no idea!’ he exclaims. Well, to be fair, why should he? I mean, Dad doesn’t go on about his days in the black-and-white strip, and Mr Blair has the country to run. At the end of our chat, the Prime Minister reveals my father’s footballing past to several bemused members of his staff, who have doubtless been spending the afternoon trying to sort out the NHS or to locate Saddam. But, for a misty-eyed moment, their grinning boss is miles away, back on the terraces of St James’.
I am sorry to hear that Canon Jeffrey John has decided not to take up his appointment as Bishop of Reading. He always seemed a very pleasant and scholarly man when he was Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford. As I recall, his homosexuality was never a source of controversy. There was, it must be said, some debate over whether he actually believed in God.
I have comforting news for my former Sunday Telegraph colleague, Andrew Gilligan. At this magazine’s summer party, I discuss l’affaire Campbell with a veteran Tory front-bencher. ‘I wish Gilligan was our leader,’ he harrumphs. ‘He actually gets under Blair’s skin – which is more than IDS does.’ I somehow doubt that Andrew would be interested in the job. But later that evening a group of female friends, gathered to celebrate my wife’s birthday, declare unanimously that the Today programme’s intrepid reporter has a ‘sexy voice’ (as opposed to a ‘sexed-up’ voice, presumably). Power may be an aphrodisiac, but annoying those in power as often as Andrew does seems to be even better. Rageh Omaar, eat your heart out.
The best state school where we live in east London has been forced to reduce its catchment area to only 110 metres – in every sense, a hurdler’s distance. Places at Lauriston Primary School are chased by parents in the neighbourhood with a ferocity that would astonish the admissions tutors at an Oxford college. Pretty soon, you’ll actually have to live in the school gym to stand a chance of getting in. I admire what people round here do to give their children the best start – move house from one street to another, in some cases – but the fact that they have to take such measures at all is outrageous. Never mind the postcode lottery in education and health; now it’s selection by house number. When I listen to senior ministers mouth platitudes about things getting so much better, I sometimes wonder which country they live in. To get a minimally decent education in far too many places you have to go private, or pay the invisible school fees of inflated property prices near acceptable schools. The only winners are estate agents.
I am a militant supporter of London’s Olympics bid for 2012, and not only because it would be so wonderful for the East End. But there’s a warning worth heeding from Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, as he sweeps through London. ‘Stick to the fundamentals,’ he says. ‘It’s about substance and not appearance.’ For which read: don’t think you can spin your way to success, Tony. Rogge is not impressed by the notion of the Beckhams as ‘ambassadors’ for the bid – and why should he be? Something interesting is happening, I think. You can see that an era in public life of glamour, spin and the cult of celebrity is drawing to a close. On the day Rogge’s remarks are reported, I take part in a radio phone-in with the Labour MP John McDonnell about ‘trust’, and caller after caller says that they are sick of showbusiness in politics. They want plain speaking. The spin won’t stop, but the body politic is developing antibodies to its relentless assault.
To the Millennium Commission for the last meeting before the summer break. I enjoy being a commissioner very much, not least because it gives me monthly access to the bons mots of Lord Heseltine. At a meeting during the war, he asked me in the tones of a disappointed headmaster why I wasn’t in Baghdad. ‘A young man like you!’ he said, shaking his mane. ‘You ought to be out making a name for yourself!’ Long may he swing through the jungle.
With a newborn in the house, our usual theatre, cinema and gallery trips are temporarily suspended. So, to fill the cultural void, we have been watching old classics on DVD. I haven’t seen Casablanca for 15 years, and I had forgotten what a richly political film it is. Alongside the great love story, Bogart’s Rick and Claude Rains’s Captain Renault conduct a majestic running dialogue at the philosophical border between political expediency and political courage. Renault reminds the supposedly cynical Rick of his bravery in Ethiopia and the Spanish civil war. ‘I got well paid for it,’ drawls Bogey. ‘The winning side would have paid you much better,’ replies the Frenchman. And when the Nazi Strasser scorns Rick as a ‘blundering American’, Renault admonishes him, ‘We mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.’ Truly, a text for our times.
Michael Buerk interviews me at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, for a programme he’s making about politics and religion. A small, reverential crowd gathers in the church to watch Michael at work: he is, and will always be, the Man from the Telly, a trusted national figure. Standing by the pews, we talk about Blair’s deepest beliefs and what they mean to him. I remember the Prime Minister’s fervour the day before and almost mention his faith in Newcastle United. Then I remember where I am, and decide to behave myself.
Matthew d’Ancona is deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph. His first novel, Going East, is published by Sceptre at £14.99.