The elaborate construction of the story of Tony Blair as lonely war leader, noted here last week, has continued to preoccupy Downing Street strategists as well as the political class more broadly. This ambitious enterprise, launched at an important moment for the government, urgently demands to become the subject of a serious academic treatise. One can only stand back and marvel at the energy, ingenuity and sheer volume of tender loving care that has helped engender the fantastic rodomontade of truth, falsehood, reality and fantasy that now encompasses the British Prime Minister, threatening to turn him into a barely intelligible and, in most respects, fictitious creature.
The traditional skills of the lobby correspondent are hopelessly inadequate even to start on an explanation of politics in the age of Blair. Decent shorthand skills and a plausible manner were the two traditional qualifications to make it as a political hack, though a striking number of lobby correspondents flourished without even those rudimentary advantages. But modern political journalists simply lack the complex skills to explain the Blair phenomenon as it has manifested itself since the end of the recent war. In some cases reporters have become part of the problem itself and are themselves in need of being explained or deconstructed. Professional outside help is needed.
Contemporary literary theory, obsessed as it is with the use of artifice, the equivalence between perception and truth, and the demystification of texts and images, is one essential tool. So, too, is a specialised understanding of mass advertising techniques and a historical understanding of the uses of political propaganda by totalitarian regimes. The forensic skills of a good investigative reporter, now sadly lacking in political reporting, would also come in handy.
New Labour, it has become startlingly evident, is above all a postmodern phenomenon. Seven years ago the project's founding genius Peter Mandelson observed, in a moment of beautiful clarity, that his job was to create the truth, a phrase which would have brought a thrill of recognition to Jacques Derrida, the celebrated founding father of European postmodernism. Although Mandelson (whose assertion, to be found in Wednesday's Daily Mirror, that 'I wouldn't lie to journalists', has been greeted with sheer delight throughout the Westminster village) is by no means the central figure he once was, his New Labour successors have remained faithful to his insights.
This is why the analogy with the Falklands war that I attempted to make last week was not in every respect adequate to explain the situation that prevails today. Reporting of the Falklands war was mainly a straightforward business. The technology of media manipulation, though not unrecognised, was in its infancy. The facts, for the most part, spoke for themselves. Where the government lied, as over the Belgrano sinking, those lies were readily detectable, or at any rate discoverable through old-fashioned, empirical techniques.
In the aftermath of the Falklands, Mrs Thatcher never sought to emphasise – as Tony Blair has repeatedly done in the last ten days – the element of personal danger. She concentrated on the difficulties faced by the troops. One central element in the emerging story of the post-war reconstruction of Tony Blair is the proposed self-immolation by Cabinet ministers in the event of a parliamentary setback before the war. But this story – my colleague Frank Johnson has enjoyably compared the psychology of the Blair Cabinet to the mass murder/suicide that overtook 913 members of the supposedly Utopian Jonestown community in 1978 – simply does not square with the facts.
It was Tony Blair himself who first came up with this curious proposition in his regrettable interview with Mr Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun immediately after the conflict. On that occasion the Prime Minister shrank back from making it at all clear what exactly would have brought about this sensational denouement to his premiership. He merely concentrated on filling in the peripheral details – his loving family gathered round, son Euan on the phone from Bristol University, etc., etc.
This was more than enough to generate a lively front-page headline. But it left unanswered questions. Did the Prime Minister mean that he would have resigned had his government failed to gain a majority in the Commons? That would have been a statement of the obvious. Any prime minister who cannot command a majority has no choice but to submit his government's resignation to the Queen. But there was no chance at all that Tony Blair, who was able to rely on Conservative support, would find himself in that position.
It is possible, however, that the Prime Minister had in mind a lower threshold when he made his remark to Mr Kavanagh. Weight is given to this theory by subsequent remarks by the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who in this matter as in all others has been content to faithfully oblige No. 10. Mr Straw has suggested that the casting of 206 votes – or half the parliamentary Labour party – against the war would have been enough to stimulate the Jonestown effect in the Blair Cabinet. But this proposition, too, raises problems.
The first is that Straw's account does not square with the facts, at any rate as they were presented privately at the time. In the last days before the vote on Iraq, as some government whips resorted to special pleading, three wavering rebels were indeed told that the Prime Minister would resign if the vote went wrong. But these rebels were given to understand that the threat would only apply if the government lost the vote tout court, not if matters went astray according to some obscure calculation of political damage inflicted.
The second problem with Straw is more vexatious still. It would have been reckless, bordering on the criminal, for Cabinet ministers to have whimsically resigned. However severe the parliamentary setback, it would have been disgraceful for Blair, Straw, Blunkett, Hoon or anyone else to have quit of their own free will on the eve of war, with 50,000 soldiers in the conflict zone. Tony Blair's account of events on the eve of war is fishy. All logic, and such evidence as we possess, suggests that the Prime Minister is telling a tall story. Sadly, the Prime Minister's past record in matters of veracity does not exonerate him, but merely deepens the suspicion that something dodgy is up.