Simon Kelner: Tony Blair and a shameless bit of embroidery


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This is not, I grant you, the most original thing you'll hear today, but that Stephen Fry – blimey, he is one clever geezer. I had the immense good fortune to spend some time with him at a party at the weekend and from the moment he noticed the host's ornamental chess board had been set up wrong and rearranged the pieces while recounting some of Bobby Fischer's more remarkable triumphs, I knew I was in for something more than small talk. And so it proved, Fry regaling me with one of the most thrilling stories I have ever heard. We were talking about Tony Blair and I was banging a drum not unfamiliar to readers of this column: why aren't people more scandalised by the money he earns, the people whose money he takes and his tax affairs?

Fry admitted he was as bewitched as anyone by New Labour in 1997, so much so that he used to write sections of Blair's speeches for him, or rather contribute, as he put it, "thought modules". For instance, for the Labour leader's party conference speech in Blackpool in 1998, Fry was asked to sprinkle on some of his fairy dust.

Fry's characteristically interesting and – some might say – recherché idea was this: the tale that Phillip of Macedonia had a man who, every day, whacked him over the head with a bladder attached to a stick to remind him that he was a mere mortal. The punchline was that Blair didn't need a man with a bladder, as he had John Prescott. Fry is very clear that when he gave Blair this idea, it started thus: "It is said that Phillip of Macedonia..."

"So there I was, at home in Norfolk, watching the leader's speech on BBC2," Fry says now, "and Blair says this: 'A book I was reading recently told me about Phillip of Macedonia...' It was then that I fell out of love with Blair."

I was hanging on Fry's every word: how often do you get the chance to hear a story that nails someone like Blair, even on a relatively minor charge? A book he was reading about Phillip of Macedonia! What a fraud! Such a shame someone didn't ask him what the book was called.

So many of the dubious tales about politicians turn out to be legendary: Blair never actually said he was a regular on the terraces at Newcastle United, and Peter Mandelson didn't really think his portion of mushy peas was guacamole in a Hartlepool chip shop. So what a thrill to get one straight from the horse's mouth.

I asked Fry whether he minded me writing about this, given that he was covered by dinner party privilege. He cleared me to share this revelation with you, but implored to do a bit of fact checking first. I was never in any doubt: Fry can remember every move from a chess game 30 years ago, so he was not going to get this wrong.

Sure enough, there it was on the internet, a speech saved for posterity.