Smiles, speeches and handshakes (no kisses): the verdict on the PM's world comeback tour

Andy McSmith, 'IoS' Political Editor, and Ben Russell tell the extraordinary inside story of Tony Blair's whistle-stop week
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Indy Politics

It was like watching an old favourite staging a comeback tour. Tony Blair, once the newest, youngest and most dynamic leader on the world stage visited five major cities, set out his economic philosophy, made diplomatic history, and held his own in a European summit.

It was like watching an old favourite staging a comeback tour. Tony Blair, once the newest, youngest and most dynamic leader on the world stage visited five major cities, set out his economic philosophy, made diplomatic history, and held his own in a European summit.

There was a time when the nation would have been starstruck by a young prime minister packing so much into so few days, and being treated with the respect due to an international statesman.

Not any more. The Prime Minister is not yet one of those acts like the Rolling Stones, so old that they create astonishment because they are still there. But he is not new either, and whether he is in Madrid paying respect to the dead, or in a tent in the desert talking to an eccentric dictator, he cannot escape the long shadow of the Iraq war.

It used to be unusual for Labour politicians to venture into the City of London and talk to an audience of bankers, but on Monday, Mr Blair delivered a speech to executives of the City bank, Goldman Sachs, which was so imbued with free market philosophy that none of the main organisations that speak for big business, such as the CBI or the Institute of Directors, thought it necessary to take issue with a single point the Prime Minister made.

There was a matching silence from the left, apart from one excoriating attack from The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. No trade union, or any notable figure from the Labour Party, had anything to say about a Labour leader telling City bankers that he believes in low taxes, flexible labour markets and deregulation. It is what they have learnt to expect.

Mr Blair flew to Northern Ireland on Tuesday morning to see if he could breathe any life into the peace process. He umpired a face-to-face meeting in Stormont with the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. It was the first time the three leaders have been together in one meeting room, and the first glimpse of possible progress for several weeks, reinforcing the notion that nothing happens in Northern Ireland unless Mr Blair is personally involved. But we already know that.

Tony and Cherie Blair had a dinner scheduled with Spain's outgoing Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to mark his retirement, but what might have been a routine courtesy became complex and sensitive, because of the horrific aftermath of the Iraq war. The event was moved from Downing Street to Madrid. Cherie Blair had to join her husband in Belfast, from where they were ferried by aircraft and helicopter to Mr Aznar's residence, while an accompanying aide carried the black hat that Mrs Blair wore for Wednesday's memorial service in Madrid's Almudena Cathedral.

Mr Blair also met the incoming Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. He would have liked to persuade Mr Zapatero not to pull 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq, but that was never likely, since the Socialist leader had fought the Spanish general election on a promise to pull them out.

Despite that setback, Mr Blair was treated with the courtesy he could expect from a fellow left of centre politician. Later in the day, Mr Zapatero's schedule overran, and he kept US Secretary of State Colin Powell waiting for half an hour, but his door opened on Mr Blair at 10am sharp, and they were together for almost an hour, discussing Iraq.

An echo of British domestic politics followed Mr Blair to his next stop, in Lisbon. His press conference in the sumptuous fern-lined back garden of the official residence of the Portuguese Prime Minister, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, was held against the noise of a street demonstration outside. The demonstrators were Portuguese students protesting about tuition fees.

To the bemusement of the Portuguese journalists, this vastly amused the British press corps, which recalled that a row over tuition fees brought Mr Blair within five votes of a Commons defeat. "I've got problems of my own on that front," the Prime Minister admitted.

His plane took off at sunrise on Thursday, to land with a jolt a few hours later outside the modest single-storey airport building that is Tripoli airport, where 50 revolutionary guards lined a red carpet steeped with gold, and a seven-year-old boy named Mohammed waited to present Mr Blair with a bouquet of pink and yellow blooms. It was the first time a British prime minister had visited Libya since the military coup which brought Col Gaddafi to power 35 years ago.

In addition to his record of domestic repression and overseas terrorism, Col Gaddafi has an infamously eccentric manner of receiving visitors. When interviewed by the BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson, he enlivened the conversation by breaking wind throughout. British officials speculated fretfully whether he would show up to meet Mr Blair at all.

Mr Blair's motorcade sped through suburbs where knots of bemused Libyans stood watching, past concrete bunkers and old MiG fighters, and up a track between huge irrigated fields of crops to the site known to Libyans as The Place. On one side was a row of faded khaki and beige bedouin tents, while on the other, two dozen camels grazed at the side of the most famous tent in the world.

Security at The Place was astonishingly relaxed, considering that it housed the man whom the US government once tried to kill with precision bombing.

Half of one wall of the tent was open, revealing the four plastic chairs inside, looking like cheap garden furniture. Suddenly, a familiar face appeared from behind the wall of the tent. It was the man who was once the world's public enemy number one.

As Mr Blair's black Mercedes drew up, he and Col Gaddafi shook hands, but did not kiss. During their talks, which lasted more than an hour, the grazing camels wandered into view, and were shooed away by the guards.

The juxtaposition of the memorial service in Madrid one day, and the meeting in Libya the next was fraught with risks. Michael Howard denounced the timing, saying that it would distress relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bomb.

Some were distressed, but ministers had been careful to prepare the ground. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has a long working relationship with Lockerbie relatives, and Jack Straw took the precaution of paying a personal call on Queenie Fletcher, mother of Yvonne Fletcher, the constable killed by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London 20 years ago.

Mr Blair's trip to Brussels on Thursday and Friday was made difficult by reports that he was about to capitulate to clauses of the proposed new EU constitution, around which he had previously promised to draw "red lines". In fact, the only change in Mr Blair's position was that he now wants the constitution ratified this year rather than later.

City bankers charmed, a peace process kept alive, a tricky diplomatic situation in Spain overcome, a rogue dictator eased back into the international community, an EU summit dealt with, are proof, if needed, that the Prime Minister is superbly competent at his job.

But in Lisbon, Mr Blair frankly acknowledged that some people believe "with passion" that the Iraq war was "an unjustified provocation, or at least a diversion from the true war against terrorism." That is the shadow he cannot shake off.