Mr Blair's triumph can only be temporary

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The Independent Online

Some time ago, in the early 1970s, I knew a very beautiful woman and a very funny man. He was trying to impress her, for the usual base masculine reason. He told jokes but she did not respond, staring blankly before her. He did his imitations and she looked even more uncomprehending. If there had been room to stand on his head he would have done that too. Eventually he gave up, no point in carrying on.

Mr Tony Blair finds himself in much the same position as the funny man. The British public is the beautiful woman. Of course, the parallel is not exact. Parallels never are; otherwise they would be straight lines. Mr Blair has not given up but is carrying on, still trying to impress. Indeed, if we are to believe those who attended his most recent press conference, he intends to go on and on and on, just as Margaret Thatcher imprudently boasted she was going to do not long before the Great Fall in 1990. Nor is Mr Blair trying to make a fresh conquest: it is just that the lady has fallen out of love with him.

Some people, admittedly, are prone to exaggerate the strength of the original passion. New Labour won the 1997 election as decisively as it did because more voters had become fed up with Mr John Major, who had outstayed his welcome by about five years, than had fallen newly in love with Mr Blair. Still, the picture we have in our minds is of some heroic national liberation - children in Whitehall waving flags supplied by Mr Alastair Campbell, Mr Peter Mandelson flinging roses into the crowd somewhere else.

Last week did not witness scenes quite like this, though it ended with Mr Mandelson once again displaying himself before our admiring eyes, even if in a new capacity this time round. What the week saw was the revival of Mr Blair. Most of my colleagues were agreed about that. What led them to this conclusion were various performances by Mr Blair: in the debate on Lord Butler's report in the House on Tuesday, at a generally subdued Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday and during his press conference on Thursday.

All three occasions enabled the Prime Minister to excel at what he is best at, words rather than deeds. If deeds are required, why, he can always come up with another five-year plan. These plans, all in New Labour-speak, are just as much words as well, when you come to think about it. Last week there were several of them. In fact Mr Blair is responsible for more five-year plans than any political leader since the demise of J V Stalin. They may turn out to be inaccurate or fail to come to anything at all. No matter. What matters is that the Prime Minister should sound confident and look relaxed - or sound relaxed and look confident - and all's well with Her Majesty's Government.

In reality the debate on the Butler report was a somewhat tawdry occasion. Mr Bruce George, a Mountain Ash boy, could easily open the boring for Glamorgan; though he would be closely challenged for this position by Mr Donald Anderson from Swansea. Virtually the only speaker to ask the right question - about when Mr Blair first decided to support Mr George Bush's invasion of Iraq - was Mr Charles Kennedy. Unsurprisingly, the question went unanswered, whether by Mr Blair or by anyone else. For the Prime Minister, the occasion was a triumph of manner over material.

Has the man no shame? As Enoch Powell used to say: merely to ask the question is to supply its answer. No, he has no shame at all, and he flourishes mightily as a consequence of this deficiency, at any rate in the eyes of the lobby correspondents and the parliamentary sketchwriters. Far from being vilified by the press, Mr Blair is treated to a daily therapeutic massage, not least because of the fond attentions of Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers. For instance, Labour only just won the Hodge Hill by-election with a swing to the Liberal Democrats of 27 per cent - as great as the swing in the Brent by-election, and greater than the swing which gave the Liberal Democrats their seat in Leicester South. This was duly hailed by The Times as a "Boost for Blair".

Mr Blair has been given a friendly shove along his way to recovery by Mr Michael Howard. I wish I could say that my heart went out to Mr Howard but, alas, it does not. He got his job at the end of last year by means of a coup. Even New Labour, a fraudulent political party in most respects, would not have gone as far as this. When the time comes for Mr Blair to take his leave, if it ever does, I am prepared to bet that Mr Gordon Brown's succession will be contested - certainly by Dr John Reid, possibly by Mr Peter Hain and Mr Charles Clarke also.

Moreover, if the succession to Mr Iain Duncan Smith was going to be prearranged, the beneficiary should clearly have been Mr Kenneth Clarke. After all, when Mr Duncan Smith was elected in 2001, it was Mr Clarke who was the first choice of the Tory MPs. And his opposition to the Iraq war would certainly not have landed the party in the difficulties in which Mr Howard now finds himself. At the time Mr Clarke's attitude was dismissed by the lobby correspondents as a "blunder". The boys and girls of the lobby have a tendency to get hold of a word and then to apply it in all circumstances. Thus Mr Rhodri Morgan was universally referred to as a "maverick", when he was an ordinary left-of-centre Welsh Labour MP.

Mr Howard is in the same position as leaders of the opposition have sometimes found themselves during or after a war. They start off by supporting it and end up wishing to oppose it. They are, however, usually Labour rather than Conservative leaders. Thus Hugh Gaitskell first seemed to support the use of force at Suez and then changed his position, though the degree of that change is still a matter of historical controversy. A less quoted example concerns Mr Michael Foot during the Falklands War, who started off by making aggressively patriotic noises, only to moderate his tone later on.

The favourite word for Mr Howard at the beginning of his stint was "forensic". This was supposed to be a good thing: deadly cross-examiner, Mr Blair under pressure, and so forth. Today, being forensic is supposed to be a fatal impediment. The truth is that lawyers who speak like lawyers rarely go down well in the House of Commons. And yet, voters no longer care much what happens there in any case. That they have not greatly taken to Mr Howard has little to do with what has gone on in the House. By the same criterion, it will take more than a few confident and relaxed performances by Mr Blair to persuade them to trust him ever again.