Word having gone out before him, we gathered before the white stucco walls of an indoor monastery, a bowl of flowers picked in the gardens that morning by Brother Mandelson adorning the simple table. But before the leader arrived, he was preceded onto the dais by other members of his sect. Twenty veteran monks, many ancient and venerable, disturbed from harmless contemplation in the loneliness of their cells, stood at the back, blinking in the light. Hermits, like Sister Lestor, who have spent long periods wrestling devils in the wilderness; Brother Clark - 17 long years stuck up a pillar or, at the very least, up a gum tree.
Others came straight from their duties. Brother Strang was in from tending to the kine, Sister Harriet from ministering to the sick with her poultices, the ascetic Brother Straw from a spot of Inquisition. Prior Prescott, the Order's simple untutored spiritual guide, could not be there in person, we were told, being laid up in the infirmary with a broken ankle. But, in a press release of surprising length (given the pain he must be suffering), he personally blessed the proceedings and hobbled amongst us in spirit.
The worldly necessity of the photo-call over, the platform party decanted to seats in the auditorium, leaving the stage empty save for three sombrely clad figures. On the right, Brother Gordon, bursar and librarian, there to emphasise the discipline and frugality of the Order. On the left, Friar Cook, tricky theologian, to explain how the new doctrine was in line with the old beliefs. Every time he spoke it was to prove that more angels than ever before can now safely dance on the head of a pin.
Then, at last, Brother Blair addressed us, his eyes glowing with fervour and certainty. He warned us that the Road to the Manifesto was stony and narrow, not broad. It cannot be danced along, but each painful footstep must be carefully trodden. No miracles for him then, only transformations. He will not turn water into wine, but give him a straw, and he'll rustle up a passable imitation of Perrier.
He brought with him nothing less, he claimed, than "the rediscovery of the essence of Labour". Our hearts beat faster. What was this? A vial, filled with a reddish dust that liquefies every May Day? A reliquary containing the bones of Michael Foot, a hair from the head of Neil Kinnock? No, a document - a new testament - entitled New Life for Britain and containing the credo of the Order.
It was now, he said, a straightforward Manichean "fight between hope and fear". On the other side stood arrayed the forces of chaos and decadence. But behind him and his testament were the powerful shades of Labour's dead saints. "Keir Hardie would sign up to it," said Brother Blair, "Attlee would sign up to it, Harold Wilson would sign up to it." "Oh, let us sign up for it, Tony," sighed a couple of dozen hard-bitten and irreligious political correspondents, "let us join you on the road you must travel; the Road to the Manifesto."Reuse content