To Portcullis House at Westminster, to take part in a Reuters debate on war and journalism. I notice John Reid, the Prime Minister’s most prominent capo regime these days, lurking at the back. His minder tells me that ‘the boss would like a word’ but a division bell saves me from finding out whether I am to sleep with the fishes. John Redwood asks a question founded on the premise that ‘the UK fights too many wars’, and I notice several Tory heads bobbing up and down in the audience. No doubt about it: the Conservatives are completely rethinking their instinctively robust attitude to military intervention. On the other side of the political trenches, Bob Marshall-Andrews, the irrepressible left-wing silk, asks whether Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war was intended to please newspaper proprietors. I doubt it: as far as I can see, the PM was only worried about the Great Proprietor in the Sky.
Mr Blair revealed recently that he prefers the Clash to the Sex Pistols, which is apt, given that his theme tune in the past few months seems to have been ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ As real as Blair’s inner turmoil apparently was, his allies claim that his decision to battle on is now final. But for how long? The electorate, God and Gordon willing, the PM will have been in No. 10 longer than Margaret Thatcher on 27 November 2008 — after which, he could be said, quite accurately, to be going ‘on and on’. But what if Blair, famously obsessed by the verdict of posterity, has his eye on another landmark: namely, to hold the Labour leadership for the longest consecutive period in the party’s history? He has already lasted longer than Gaitskell (seven years) and Kinnock (nine) and will pass Wilson’s 13 years and one month in September 2007. But Terrier Tony must hold on until 25 July 2014 to beat Attlee’s awesome record of 20 years and four days. Impatient Brownites, take note.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s aides have more immediate concerns. They are worried about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the collateral damage that this anti-Bush polemic may do to their boss’s own box-office appeal. ‘Do you think Michael Moore will make a film about Tony?’ one of his closest advisers frets. The Labour leader, I am told, relished Love, Actually, not least the scene in which the Blairesque prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, dances groovily around the state rooms of No. 10. But I doubt the Prime Minister would enjoy the ‘cinematic colonic’ which Michael Moore has said he deserves for his support of the Iraq war.
I finally get round to the Coen brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers. It’s an enjoyable homage to the Ealing original — Alec Guinness via American Gothic — but not everyone in the audience seems impressed. Five minutes into the movie, four teenage boys in hooded tops and high-top trainers march out, cursing expressively into their mobiles. I get the feeling that the film’s title led them to expect something rather different.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Iraq has injected a new, splendidly Orwellian word into the political bloodstream: ‘groupthink’. This term handily implies that people do very bad things because they are in the grip of a collective, cultural delusion: naughty, in other words, but forgivable. On this basis, Guy Fawkes could have claimed that he was part of the ‘Gunpowder Groupthink’. There may not have been a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy: but perhaps there was a bit of a ‘groupthink’ on the grassy knoll. And the fall of Thatcher? ‘Groupthink’ with a smiling face.
Like a Japanese soldier in the jungle who refuses to believe that the war is over, our three-year-old is in denial about the end of Euro 2004. He still wears his England shirt with pride and demands Skinner and Baddiel’s ‘Three Lions’ anthem over breakfast (if not earlier). Indeed, his command of the lyrics is now so good that my wife has found him happily singing ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home…’ to himself. The obsession began when Ashley Cole, England’s star defender, gave out the prizes at his school’s sports day and, before you could say ‘limitless merchandising opportunities’, a flag-waving fan was born. As the man of the house, it fell to me to break the news of Beckham’s missed penalty and England’s failure. ‘Oh well,’ he said, determined not to let this minor setback spoil the party, ‘never mind.’
A photographer acquaintance introduces me to a novel form of forward planning. At a shoot for a group portrait to go with a newspaper article, he takes each of us aside one by one and photographs us on our own, perched on a stool in the full glare of the studio lights. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘what if one of you becomes famous? I always do this with my group pictures. It’s for my National Portrait Gallery retrospective in 30 years’ time. I’ll have a portrait in my files.’ He snaps away. ‘I’m not saying you will be famous, by the way. This is just in case.’
Back to Westminster for a meeting of David Puttnam’s commission on ‘Parliament in the Public Eye’. One of our number mentions that a group of young visitors to the House of Lords described it as a place where old men sit on benches and fall asleep. Apparently the parliamentary officials regard it as bad form to wake up slumbering peers, and tend to leave well alone. A counter-claim is made at our meeting that the apparently comatose Lords are not, in fact, sleeping at all but merely hard of hearing — inclining their heads so they can pick up the live feed from the hidden speakers. Clearly we shall have to resolve this important matter before we report.
For the first time, I am doing the rounds of the literary festivals this year, promoting the paperback of my novel Going East. It is a very enjoyable way of spending one’s days off, and a window into a new world: a sort of travelling literary circus, touring the country from marquee to marquee, book-signing to book-signing. It’s the closest the literary establishment gets to rock’n’roll on the road (which is not very close). So far I’ve done Hay-on-Wye, Dartington and Newcastle — where, after my own event, I enjoyed a panel discussion by a group of editors and writers on ‘What Not to Write’. The consensus on publishing no-nos was that Vikings, wizards and short stories in general are definitely out. So I suppose I shall have to shelve my secret project — The Further Adventures of Erik the Sea-Faring Sorcerer. Three gigs down, two to go. No sleep till Edinburgh.
Matthew d’Ancona is deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Going East is published by Sceptre.