Who danced till his nappy dropped?

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has been a show-off since he was in nappies, according to his father.

In the new edition of Tony Blair, John Rentoul's biography of the Labour leader, Leo Blair recalls that his son's first public performance was "a display of ballroom dancing accompanied by the band" on a ship to Australia in 1954, when he was 18 months old.

The future Labour leader, dressed only in a nappy, entertained the passengers on the maiden voyage of the liner Iberia as the family sailed to start a new life in Adelaide. "The dance ended only when his nappy dropped to his ankles," Leo Blair says.

The boy Blair continued to enjoy the public stage. At the age of four, at his pre-prep school in Adelaide, he "brought the house down" with a performance of dancing and singing as Mr Nobody. "It was somewhat difficult for his mother to get him off the stage," according to his father.

The Blair family lived in Adelaide, where Leo was a law lecturer at the university, for three years. But Leo never intended to settle permanently in Australia. "I enjoyed the academic life in Australia and we met some great companions, but I always had the ambition to be a British MP. Furthermore, my ambition was boundless - I wanted to be prime minister," he says.

His ambition was thwarted by a stroke in 1964 which deprived him of the power of speech for three years. Hence his intense pride in his son, poised on the brink of fulfilling his aim - albeit for a different party.

Leo had been a communist in his youth in Glasgow. Then, "Like a number of servicemen, I voted Labour in 1945," he says. But, by the time he left the army two years later, he had been an officer for a few years. He attributes his conversion to the Conservative Party simply to "the great change from living in a tenement in Govan to life in the officers' mess".

Fifty years later Leo recanted, when he joined his local Labour Party in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, last year.

His recollections of Tony's childhood shed some light on the making of the Labour leader. Tony Blair once said: "I never felt myself very anchored in a particular setting or class." From the relatively classless Australia - the model for the "young country" of last year's Labour conference speech - the family moved to Durham. Leo says he chose Durham for no other reason than that he had seen a post as a law lecturer there advertised while he was in Australia.

The family lived a comfortable middle-class existence, and Leo could afford to send Tony and his older brother, Bill, to Fettes College, a private school in Edinburgh. He says that he chose the school for his children for three reasons: "I had read in the Scottish Field that Fettes was the 'Eton of Scotland'; the local county judge went there, as did his son; I have always found that the Scots valued a good education and its benefits more than the ordinary Englishman."

At Fettes, Tony Blair moved on from "Mr Nobody", and showed himself to be an outstanding actor. Among other roles, he played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, hence getting the chance to do the "Friends, Romans and countrymen . . ." speech. At Oxford University, he continued to hold the stage, this time as lead singer in a rock band.

8 The revised paperback edition of Tony Blair, by John Rentoul, will be published by Warner Bros at the end of the month.