We were on our way from Stansted to Prestwick, and somewhere over northern England Mr and Mrs Blair came up the aisle from their front seats to have their photographs taken and to go to the loo. Blair was more relaxed than I'd seen him before. He chatted to a few reporters and obliged the demands of photographers with the aw-shucks-guys irony that is his speciality. When he and Cherie reached our row, both greeted my companion as though he were an old friend. Blair promised that he would make time to see him later. As they spoke, I realised he was a North American.
I wondered if he was the famous, top-secret Clinton man who allegedly advised on campaign strategy behind the screens at Labour's headquarters in Millbank. "Uh, uh," said my companion and introduced himself as Irwin Stelzer, indicating that he was somewhat to the right of President Clinton's position on economic and social policy, wherever that currently might be.
"You're not a Robert Reich supporter, then?" I said. Reich, who was Clinton's labour secretary in his first cabinet, had given an interview the week before in which he warned Blair against "watered-down Republicanism" - the "prison of budget austerity" that had trapped Clinton and is now, according to Reich, sharpening the divisions between the American rich and poor.
"Oh no," said Mr Stelzer and smiled.
We flew over Cumbria. Mr Stelzer emerged as the only person I'd met on the Blair campaign who criticised Blair's five early pledges for a Labour government not because they were too cautious and miniature, but because they were too leftist and interventionist. The minimum wage worried him in particular. Anything that might tend to reduce the opportunity of employment, however poorly paid, was bad; a proper reward for work wasn't the point. The point, as Mr Stelzer put it, was to get people to "show up" at the workplace, to get them used to the culture of work and out of the subsidised and criminal underclass. He told a story of some work scheme in the US where young people kept knocking off to eat at odd and irregular times, not understanding why the discipline of lunch breaks was necessary. And then he talked for a while about Rupert Murdoch, whom he seemed to know and admire.
Later I learnt from another journalist on the plane that this was indeed the case. It was Stelzer, he said, who had helped to swing Murdoch (and therefore his two biggest newspapers, the Sun and the News of the World) behind Blair. How had he achieved this? By stressing Blair's Christian values to Pat Robertson, the American politico-evangelist whose words carry weight with the reborn Christian Murdoch.
I don't know how true this story is - Murdoch's support for Blair may have more complicated roots. Nor do I tell it to tut-tut about Mr Stelzer's views on the minimum wage - they may not be wicked. What the story illustrates is that when Blair talks of New Labour's "inclusiveness", about its need to represent people "in every single walk of British life", he may in government be much more inclusive than many people have yet to realise; and that his "magisterial vacuity", the now famous description of Blair by another American, Joe Klein, is a misleading phrase if it gives the impression that Blair has an empty head. His head, in fact, may be a noisy and over-crowded place, in which a dizzying variety of friends and political beliefs tug for his attention: Paul Johnson versus Will Hutton, Peter Mandelson versus John Prescott, his spiritual mentor, Peter Thompson, in one corner and Rupert Murdoch in another.
"How am I getting on with Blair?" said a friend of his later that day. "I am getting on with him very well. But then everybody gets on with him. You're not a member of an exclusive club if you get on with Tony Blair."
WE LANDED at Prestwick and flew across the Galloway hills to Dumfries in 11 helicopters. Suddenly, summer had come. The local Labour Party in this marginal seat (won the next day, of course) had organised an event in a green park beside the River Nith. There were many red balloons and children; it looked like a picnic. Richard Wilson, the actor (Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave), was the warm-up man and made all of us laugh with his Meldrewish attacks on the opposition. Sean Connery had spoken for the Scottish National Party "from his humble croft in Marbella". Trusting the future to John Major was like "trusting your wife and daughter with Alan Clark". Then some pipers struck up with Scotland the Brave and Blair came to the microphone and warned the crowd against complacency: "This election isn't over till it's over."
Well, of course not. But now, after 34 days of campaigning, 9,000 miles travelled, 60 constituencies visited, 423 interviews given, he looked younger and fresher than in many previous moments; care was evaporating in the sunshine. A campaign of such length, such caution and organisation - the whole belt-and-braces business of the daily monitoring of Mandelson's focus groups and the campaign's small adjustments to their response - had made the media thirst for gaffes and wobbles, and in the middle of the campaign Blair had looked wobbly. But what we had forgotten, and what Blair was almost certainly now remembering, was that much greater thirst - "out there" as it was always put on the campaign bus - of the electorate for change and punishment.
We got back in our 11 helicopters and flew down the Solway and over the noble, empty spaces of the Pennines. Bright yellow fields of EU-subsidised rapeseed appeared with eastern England. In Stockton market place it was hot and crowded. Blair introduced Prescott as the best deputy any man could wish for, and the crowd clapped and cheered. Then we moved by bus to Middlesbrough; the nicer part of Middlesbrough. A great paradox of Blair's campaign was that, by concentrating on marginal seats, it visited the pleasanter parts of Britain, the places where, if you like, 18 years of Conservative government have worked best. And so I have been in finely restored warehouses in Manchester, well-equipped health centres in the London suburbs, down many wide motorways and leafy avenues. And so we went to a school in an owner- occupied piece of Middlesbrough, to confront another paradox. While the school had classes of more than 30 pupils each (and therefore exemplified one of the tragedies of British education), it was also a very good school (otherwise the governors would not have allowed Blair inside).
Children were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the assembly hall and singing. Facing them, a press of journalists were penned behind a tape. Mr and Mrs Blair sat to the side, listening, I like to think, with genuine sympathy and appreciation. The last song was Blake's "Jerusalem".
High small voices - "And did those feet in ancient times..." - mixed with the click and whirr of cameras. Somebody near me said that it was as sentimental and sickening a constructed scene as the death of Little Nell, but I'm not sure that many people saw it that way. There is something about Blair's misty vision of Britain, his talk of the need to restore British values such as compassion and that old Orwellian indefinable, decency, which sits better with him than it ever did with John Major, for whom Britain was always England, and England was always the Oval and a good Test innings in 1955. Blair has some things in common with Major - grandparents in the music- hall, a father who changed his surname when he was 25 (from Parsons to that of his adoptive Glasgow parents) - but in terms of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom he is much more, the favourite word again, inclusive.
AT LAST we reached Blair's Sedgefield constituency and the Labour Club in the village of Trimdon, where, Blair had told me on the plane, I would find his "real supporters". They were packed into the club and drinking beer under the television lights. A traditional Labour scene: working people, jokes, social warmth. Trimdon sits above the remaining deposits of what used to be the Durham coalfield.
I asked when the last pit had closed. "Eh, when would that be now?" said the first man I asked and went to fetch another, who had to fetch a shirt, who gave me the answer. Trimdon Colliery went in 1966, Trimdon Grange in 1967, Fishburn in 1973. A. long time ago then? "Oh, ages ago."
Still, Trimdon is usually defined as "ex-mining village" as if that was in some way a useful description. It is about as useful, in fact, as defining the A5 as an ex-Roman road. Its ex-ness has nothing to do with the way people live there now, and increasingly little to do with what they feel and want. The people of Trimdon travel to work in factories and offices that have been built by inward investment from the United States and the Far East. Their village is a commuter village which sits prettily on a hill, satellite dishes on the house fronts and Newcastle United steps in the playground. When Blair told his audience at Trimdon that he wanted a country where "we address the future not the past" he was preaching to the long, if sadly and forcibly, converted. The past there stopped when Ted Heath was still Prime Minister.
The following morning, polling day, I took an early train from Darlington to London. I suppose I must have been up and down this line several hundred times, back and forth to Scotland and stories in the North-east: the closure of Consett steel works, rows among pigeon-fanciers in colliery terraces, etc. Slowly, the view from the window has changed. Ships no longer sail in the Tyne, the freight yards have vanished, first the pithead winding gear went, and then the slagheaps were smoothed into hills. For a while, the landscape lived in this condition of ex-ness, and then it seemed to come to terms with its present: yellow-brick homes occupied the sidings, a distant clock- tower in cod English vernacular (Tesco, out of town) replaced the winding gear on the horizon.
And now, as the sun shone on the rape fields, I remembered a journey from South Wales 10 years ago on the morning that Neil Kinnock lost his first election. I remembered that as the train went down the Thames Valley to Reading - software factory units, company cars - I thought of how impossible it was that Kinnock could ever capture this kind of territory. Not because he was Welsh or red-haired or thinning on top, but because he spoke for an alien life, fast fading: solidarity, the working-class movement, a mining community in South Wales which was not quite ex- even then.
Now Blair has captured it; a right and necessary capture, a national relief. His trip to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street on Friday looked like a royal wedding. I do not mean to be ominous. Who has the right, in these few days at least, to deny us celebration?