Donald Macintyre's sketch: A realm of almost Confucian abstraction

Tony Blair still has the Power - as he proved during his Progress speech

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Everything was in place. The perma-tan. The suit and open-necked shirt. The glottal stop working overtime. (He now doesn’t even pronounce the “t” in “But”.) The trademark pregnant pause which answers a tricky question as eloquently as words. And the walk on to the podium to an ecstatic welcome.

Those attending Blair’s Progress speech were sternly warned “No refreshments”. The Progress audience, the closest Labour comes to having a cult, are not the flaky sort who have to be lured to a 7.45am meeting with the man himself by a mere cup of coffee.

And he still has the Power. True, the fans were desperate to hear him explicitly endorse Liz Kendall. But since a lot of his chat about not reacting to the victory of the right by moving left was almost identical with what she says, he didn’t need to.

Backing a candidate might not “help them” he said. But if anyone’s “heart” told them vote Corbyn they should “get a transplant”. And choosing Corbyn would be like going back to the 1980s, “from the period of Star Trek”. (Since Blair was 14 when the show first aired, it’s touching that it’s the most retro thing he could think of.)

Asked about whether it would be a “massive mistake” to elect Tom Watson as deputy leader, he suggested that it would be good to have a woman in the job and not someone engaged in “machine politics”. This was a bit longer than saying “you betcha”, but just as clear.

Less so was his gnomic compliment to the former Labour leader Ed Miliband: “I actually came to have a lot of admiration for him as a political character.” He could have been talking about Homer Simpson.

Some of his lines were good, if not brand new. He used to use one about a man saying: “I know what you’re up to. You’re trying to get Tories to vote Labour” during the 1994 Clause IV meetings, but on 22 July it was a woman, so they must have had a sex change.

And I can reveal that he had been planning to use his most eye-catching line of the day – comparing the SNP to a caveman pointing his club at the horizon and saying “The problem’s over there” – before the election, but was restrained, in case it was too provocative.

But gradually we found ourselves in the realm of higher, almost Confucian, abstraction. “The world is a fascinating place,” he announced at one point. What was most needed by the party was “root-and-branch analysis” so that it could begin “articulating the new thinking around where the world is”.

Twice he mentioned the terrific things some Labour councils were doing but omitted to say what. But again, he didn’t need to. Labour could still win again “but only if our comfort zone is the future”. Back to the future with Tony! They stood and cheered.

“We can win next time,” he promised. And in the party’s present dire straits, that was enough.