Shell-shocked Blair recovers his composure

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The Independent Online

Maybe it was the praise lavished on him by the South Korean President. Maybe it was the Korean journalist who said it was a privilege to be able to ask him a question. But it swiftly became clear yesterday that Tony Blair had managed to recover his composure after what must have been his most nightmarish press conference to date.

Twenty four hours earlier, in the Japanese hill resort of Hakone, the Prime Minister had tentatively taken centre stage, looking more nervous than any journalist present could remember as he faced his first press questions since the death of the government scientist David Kelly. Mr Blair appeared awkwardly stiff and dark suited, but yesterday in South Korea he seemed to be returning to normality.

It could have been the obligatory cups of green tea, his visit to a Shinto shrine or the result of a good night's sleep on traditional tatami straw matting that had lifted his spirits. But a more cynical and plausible explanation is that Mr Blair knew early in the morning that the BBC would soon make its statement. One that, after a calamitous series of reverses, would give the Blair camp the first point it saw itself as scoring in the subtle and not-so-subtle blame game (Peter Mandelson's Sunday newspaper article, forinstance) that the Government continues to play.

He survived a protest by three Korean peace demonstrators wielding a hastily constructed "Who Killed David Kelly" banner outside Seoul's Myongdong Roman Catholic Cathedral where Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, made an unannounced visit to attend mass.

He stuck rigidly to his public line that further discussion of Dr Kelly's case should await the establishment of "the facts" by Lord Hutton's inquiry.

On Saturday in Japan he seemed to be sleepwalking through his schedule, making his most pro-euro speech yet with all the passion of a speak-your-weight machine.

Yesterday, he was far from being his old confident self. But for a political leader at his lowest point there was progress; he made a wan joke about also wanting a "baseball" question. And though still suited, he had abandoned the tie.