John Rentoul: Back in the spotlight, it was as though the old charmer had never been away

A tour to promote his autobiography has put the former Prime Minister back in the headlines
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The Independent Online

He did not say, "I am big; it's the politics that got small," but we knew what he meant. He was a reminder in person, on BBC Breakfast, the Today programme, Radio 5 Live, the News Channel and Sky News, of what we have missed these past four years. We could be reminded of it every week if we knew what to look for. The ease and confidence with which David Cameron sweeps aside perfectly good, precise and awkward questions. The astonishing absence of leadership quality in the Labour Party, because nothing would grow in Tony Blair's shade. The Coalition's reference to Blairite reforms at all points as the comparator against which its policies should be measured.

But here he was, not in the flesh, exactly, but on the front page of The Times, above the headline "Europe needs a leader", with his preposterous suggestion for a directly elected president of the European Union. At least no one could accuse him this time of making the mistake he made when he created a mayor of London and a Welsh first minister without having a candidate in mind.

It was a delight, of course, to hear his light voice again on all available channels, showing how it is done. The effortless evasion, not so much of difficult questions but of any rough surfaces that might lead to them. Phone hacking? Nothing he really wanted to say about that. It was only after we had marvelled at the rapier through Ed Miliband that we mentally rewound the tape. The phone hacking business is mainly an embarrassment for News International, owned by Rupert Murdoch, about whose interests Blair is reflexively cautious, even though his book is not even published by him, but by Random House – oh, has someone got a paperback edition out this week?

As for Ed Miliband, it was not so much a rapier as non-invasive, microscopic heart surgery. He was "in the course of" setting out what he stood for, said Blair. "Obviously he's got his conference speech coming up later this year." What? The deadline is that soon?

It was so easy for Blair to offer his successor-but-one his "complete and total support" that he made it look like instinct, but we know that it must actually involve several terabytes of simultaneous computing power.

He is a quad-core politician, and there is only David Cameron who has anything like that kind of chipset. He can do the subtle power play, and can switch from something that needs time to decode, to statements of the blindingly obvious rephrased with a plausible illusion of profundity.

Thus he managed to make it sound as if he didn't really want Assad, the Syrian dictator, to go, while he stepped off into a short theory of revolutions that made perfect sense of his position on Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel-Palestine and anywhere else that Sarah Montague tried to put to him. And it makes as much sense as anyone else's take. More, in fact, because it is better expressed. Evolution would be better than revolution, but it is up to Gaddafi, Assad and the Bahraini royal family how they want to play it. On the other hand, there is also a danger that the sinister elements of his Manichean world view will take advantage of disorder.

Thus he used half-a-dozen media appearances yesterday to say roughly the same things. China: 160 cities over 1 million. World changing very fast. We've got to change with it (that means you, Ed Miliband – forget all that "Blue Labour" nostalgia kick). He is a player on the world stage.

Europe ought to be a player. "The rationale for Europe today is about power, not peace." It sounded a bit scary, but you see what he means if you read the introduction to the new paperback edition of his memoir: the EU is no longer about stopping World War III between France and Germany. He said all that while avoiding any of the traps into which he might have fallen.

He sidestepped the trap of endorsing what he called the Conservative government (no "Tory-led government" for him) without even appearing to move. His reforms had been focused on the "poorest and most disadvantaged", he said, knowing that new academy schools since 2010 have tended to have fewer pupils on free school meals than the average, whereas those under Labour replaced schools in the most difficult areas, with the most challenging intakes. "Insofar as he [Cameron] is doing that I would support it, and insofar as he is not, I don't."

He barely noticed a question about David Kelly. And The Daily Telegraph, which went large on the Archbishop's criticism of coalition policies for which "no one" had voted, was "not my average daily reading", but he had seen it in a BBC waiting room. "You want to ask me about it, do you?"

He, who must regret that he appointed Rowan Williams, has been on the receiving end of Canterbury's sermons himself, and obviously thought the old duffer was a disillusioned Liberal Democrat leftie. He managed to phrase it, though, in the third person passive once removed: "The Government will say that they're very relaxed about it and get on with whatever they want to do."

How we have missed such class since 27 June 2007, the day when the skies darkened and the country went to the dogs! There was no news yesterday. Tony Blair's far better than anyone else in politics today; David Kelly wasn't murdered; and the Archbishop's a fool.

Tony's day

7:45am Begins a busy morning at the BBC by appearing on the Breakfast news show.

8:10am Appears in the main interview slot on the Today programme to be questioned about the Arab Spring.

8:45am A swift switch to Radio 5 Live to be interviewed by Nicky Campbell.

10:10am It's back on TV now, this time for a chat with the BBC News Channel.

1:40pm Completes his newsroom tour by talking with Adam Boulton on Sky News.

John Rentoul is a biographer of Tony Blair and chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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