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Blair has won — in his playground cheat way

Matthew Parris

LINGUISTICALLY at least, new Labour is proving the beacon to Africa which Tony Blair promised. Asked on the BBC news yesterday about corruption, a spokesman for the Government of Kenya conceded that there might be “issues around” such matters in Kenyan “governance” but that these were being “addressed”. It was time, he said triumphantly, to “move on”. Mercifully we were spared “closure”, “draw a line under” or yet another “line in the sand”.

A line of another sort was drawn this week as Mr Blair completed ten years as leader of the Labour Party. In what proved an exceptionally busy few days in politics — busy with the Prime Minister’s failure to make up his mind about a Cabinet reshuffle, the Defence Secretary’s clarification of the word “increases” for the Armed Forces (“increases” mean “cuts”), clarification of the Transport Secretary’s “go-ahead ” for London’s Crossrail project (“go-ahead” means “stall”), and clarification of the Government’s plans for three referendums on English regional assemblies (“three” means “one, because we can’t win the other two”) — Mr Blair’s personal anniversary itself was little-trumpeted.

And, like the Government of Kenya, our Prime Minister has moved on or, rather, off: to Sedgefield, after a Commons debate on the Butler report which the media almost unanimously decided to call a “triumph” for Mr Blair.

Well if “yah, booh, sucks, see if I care” counts as a debating triumph; if cheap, point-scoring quotation from Michael Howard’s local newspaper counts as an answer to Lord Butler’s troubling report; and if two fingers cocked in the face of all the evidence counts as a moral victory, then, yes, Mr Blair has won. He might as well have mooned at the populace from the back of his prime ministerial limousine as he left London. That too would have been described by the quality press as a “characteristically confident performance” and “another tour de force”, and by the tabloids as “Cheeky Tony!”

But he did moon at us yesterday. If the appointment of Peter Mandelson to the European Commission is not the equivalent of a bared bottom pressed to the glass of the Jaguar window as he speeds away from the Metropolis, then it is hard to think what would be. There can only be a finite number of ways of telling us all to sod off, but this Prime Minister’s inventiveness knows no bounds.

Do we care? Those of us who do care must admit with growing exasperation that much of the populace really do not. For let’s face it: the English mob rather admires rascality in a leader, and the British press follows the English mob. Were Mr Blair (in the immortal phrase of our High Commissioner in Nairobi) to vomit on our shoes, a large section of the media and its audience would squeak: “Ooh, you are awful, Tony, — but we like you”.

Defend it though some still manfully do, almost everybody in the world knows that the occupation of Iraq was a mistake; Mr Blair knows it was a mistake, and we know he knows. Honest argument remains possible about whether Britain had much choice but to follow the United States in its mistake, but that is where honest argument stops.

Which brings us to the buzz-phrase of the month, Lord Butler’s shy rose for the Prime Minister, that single flower deftly inserted into a bouquet of stinking weeds, that lonely stem calculated to catch Blair’s eye as, with a “Why, thank you Robin!” he selected the rose for his lapel, and deftly swept the rest of the vegetation under his desk. It’s official: Mr Blair has been allowed “good faith”.

Well, not by this columnist, he hasn’t.

One of the more disgusting habits of the English gentleman in Westminster and Whitehall is his noisy protestation of his opponent’s honour. Adjusting his gold-rimmed bifocals, drawing himself up to his full height, rocking gently on his toes, tucking two plump metaphorical thumbs beneath the tops of his metaphorical braces and noisily clearing his throat, the gentleman in politics begins his address to the jury of British opinion with a time-hallowed: “May I say at the outset that not for a moment would I question Mr Mephistopheles’s good faith. To impugn his honour is the last thing I would wish to do. Who can doubt that Mr Mephistopheles meant well?

“So let us be clear. It is no part of my argument that Mr Mephistopheles meant to mislead. If I accuse him of a puzzling inadvertence to a range of luminously evident truths, if I doubt his prudence, if I question his judgment, if I share with you my bewilderment at his failure to proceed from an undisputed premise to its ineluctable conclusion, if I regret his unfortunate disinclination to rectify an obvious wrong, then let nobody say I impugn his character. For the avoidance of doubt let me say again — let me spell it out — Mr Mephistopheles is an honourable man.”

That, in summary, is the gist of the Butler report. And Mr Blair falls on Lord Butler’s neck and, for all the world as though the big debate were about his immortal soul, cries “Yipee! I’m an honourable man. I acted in good faith — see, it says so in this here report! So bog off, Tories and Liberals.”

Which, licking their wounds while the press lick Mr Blair’s shoes, the opposition parties have — with an almost lone exception. It was with a huge cheer from my sofa that, watching the Commons debate on Butler this week, I heard the following from an almost unknown young Conservative MP.

Mr John Baron (C, Billericay): “If the Prime Minister’s only mistake in this affair is that we went to war even though it is now clear that there are no weapons of mass destruction, it would have been right to question only his wisdom. However, because . . . there was a very wide margin indeed between the extent to which the intelligence services qualified their remarks when reporting to the Prime Minister, and what the Prime Minister told Parliament and the country, it is also right to question his integrity and credibility . . . as a country we were misled by the Prime Minister.”

Mr Deputy Speaker: “Order. That is the second time, I think, that the Hon Gentleman has used that word. He should be very careful with the words he uses. We have strict conventions in the House.”

Wisely, the backbencher then desisted. But faintly in some celestial region I could hear the trumpets sound for John Baron. All hail, Billericay! Let blessings fall upon you, Pitsea. Bask in perpetual sunshine, Burnham-on-Crouch. May pestilence recoil at your gates, Ingatestone, Fryerning and Mountnessing. Advance, Margaretting. Prosper, Vange! Your tribune has had the guts to say what every dog in the Essex street knows. And even Mr Blair’s admirers confess that in pursuit of his goals, this is a prime minister who is careless of the proprieties, cynical in his disregard for the lies his servants tell, and ready to twist the truth.

The alternative is unthinkable. It is that before he relayed the warning to to the nation, Mr Blair honestly never thought to ask for details of the attack Saddam could launch within 45 minutes; that he honestly overlooked the word “tonight” in Jacques Chirac’s refusal to support a United Nations ultimatum; that Jack Straw honestly thought the Prime Minister did not need to hear how key evidence for his case had been kicked away; that John Scarlett brushed aside caveats, not because he knew his boss preferred to do the same, but because in his professional opinion they did not matter; that, in short, the Prime Minister is an idiot served by idiots rather than a cynic served by cynics. By accepting Mr Blair’s good faith, Lord Butler can be argued to have launched an excoriating attack on his competence.

I do not doubt his competence. I used to think he had persuaded himself of his duff information, but after Butler I can no longer believe it. Mr Blair is a playground cheat and — frankly, my dear — Britain does not give a damn. The dogs may bark but the caravan moves on. Well, this dog is still barking.