There are times when there is no alternative but to throw up one’s hands in despair and just confess that one is not up to the job. A plumber, sent to investigate a problem with the drains, is doing his client a favour if he admits that he cannot identify the cause of the problem. Likewise a doctor who confesses that he cannot discover the ailment that troubles his patient. So too there are times when it is best for a political journalist to come clean and admit to his readers that he is completely out of his depth.
So it is with this Labour conference. It just doesn’t add up. There is something rum going on, though it is hard to say what. The conundrum is easy enough to state. Tony Blair arrived in Bournemouth after the most calamitous summer of his political career. He took his party into a war it hated, on premises that have since turned out to be false. No Labour leader, apart from the reviled Ramsay MacDonald, has betrayed his party on this scale.
And yet Tony Blair entered the conference hall to cheers and left it to tumultuous applause. The Prime Minister’s speech has subsequently been lavishly praised. Commentators, broadcasters, leader columns all seem to agree about this. By Wednesday morning a consensus had emerged that Tony Blair had ‘done the job’. And given that in politics appearance and reality are pretty well identical, I suppose there is no denying that they are right.
But this raises the perplexing question. How did the Prime Minister pull off his amazing feat? The conventional explanation, that the speech did it, cannot be true. Rarely during his increasingly precarious and in many ways disgraceful incumbency of No. 10 Downing Street has Tony Blair delivered as muddled, intellectually dishonest and morally disturbing a piece of oratory as the effort served up to the Labour conference on Tuesday.
First: the muddle. There were two starkly conflicting messages, reflecting the contradictory advice the Prime Minister has been receiving within Downing Street. First he claimed that he was about to change his style of leadership and embark on ‘a new discussion with the people of Britain’. This will be ‘the biggest policy consultation ever to have taken place in this country’. Doubtless so. But elsewhere he boasted that ‘I can only go one way. I’ve not got a reverse gear’ — the assertion that made the newspaper headlines. Either of these contradictory claims can be true, but emphatically not both. Tony Blair has often been accused of being all things to all men, but even he has rarely attempted this within the same party conference speech.
The intellectual dishonesty was worst during the section on Iraq. This was crucial because it confronted the anger of Labour activists. It worked, and Tony Blair was clapped in the hall. Later I went back and read the Iraq section in full. It added nothing, deceived the audience, appeared to carry meanings which on later inspection just weren’t there. Anyone wanting to understand Tony Blair would be advised to study those eight paragraphs on Iraq. They were the remarks of the political equivalent of a cardsharp. The Prime Minister’s attempt to generate emotion by tearfully referring to private letters he had received from families of soldiers killed in the Iraq war was distasteful and improper.
Almost as worrying was the Prime Minister’s obsessive eagerness to share the psychological burden of leadership with his compliant audience. Perhaps it is true that after six years in Downing Street he is ‘more battered without but stronger within’. Either way, it is not for him to say. This kind of analysis is best left to friendly critics. Besides, the Prime Minister’s narcissistic claim that he is a strong man set on a lonely path just does not ring true. His six years of office have been mainly about failure of nerve, an obsession with opinion polls and newspaper headlines, and a palpable aversion to risk. Try talking to the businessmen who thought the Prime Minister would fight for the euro. Or to Paddy Ashdown, who was led up the garden path over proportional representation. Tony Blair failed to stand by Alan Milburn in his battle against the trade unions and the Chancellor over foundation hospitals. These moments of political cowardice have been far more frequent than the occasions, such as the Iraq war, when he has stood out against the crowd.
So Tony Blair’s narcissistic speech did not save the day. Other factors need to be brought speculatively to bear. Part of the explanation is simply technical. The real hero of this week’s conference was Ian McCartney, the new party chairman. No praise can be too high for the way he squared the unions, fixed the agenda, and discreetly planted cheerleaders around the hall to co-ordinate the false, frenzied applause for the leader’s speech.
Something else is at work. Tony Blair, in essence, is very little more than a gigantic media ramp, bought into early by hard-nosed corporate interests. These big players are not yet ready to dump their stock. The Murdoch press is still very much on the premises, the Mirror Group reclaimed, the Express onside; even the Daily Telegraph seems better disposed to Tony Blair than to the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith. It was very hard indeed — perhaps impossible — for Tony Blair to fail.
This week in Bournemouth was a corporate show, not a party conference. Labour party managers will reflect on this with pride, and so in a sense they should. But it is unhealthy. Politics is dying out in Britain, going the way of the red telephone box and seaside holidays. Labour says it is worried by this, and wants to reclaim its authenticity and attract the young. In reality it dare not do so. The promise of a consultation exercise can only be a sham. New Labour is about a denial of politics.
This weekend the attention starts to shift to Iain Duncan Smith as he travels to his own party gathering in Blackpool. Like Tony Blair, Duncan Smith faces mutterings about his leadership. The Tory leader is confident that his speech will set a new direction for his party, and maybe it will. It will not be difficult for him to make a better speech than Tony Blair’s. But the expensive apparatus that made the Blair speech appear in such a blessed light: that will be harder to acquire.