Matthew Norman: Our cult of celebrity begins at the top

Some view it as a tactic, but I suspect Blair's reverence for fame and wealth is one of the few genuine things about him

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The long and winding road of human existence is peppered with signposts towards the grave, and the older we get the quicker they flash by. First pay cheque, first sacking, first time your back goes, first encounter with a sardonic traffic cop who might be your great nephew, first time you hear a GP make the perceptive diagnosis that "you're not getting any younger", the sombre realisation that there is now not a single Premiership player older than yourself ... with each month that passes, another odious little sign of senescence renders the mirror more and more redundant.

The long and winding road of human existence is peppered with signposts towards the grave, and the older we get the quicker they flash by. First pay cheque, first sacking, first time your back goes, first encounter with a sardonic traffic cop who might be your great nephew, first time you hear a GP make the perceptive diagnosis that "you're not getting any younger", the sombre realisation that there is now not a single Premiership player older than yourself ... with each month that passes, another odious little sign of senescence renders the mirror more and more redundant.

Yet of all these echoes of decay, I can think of few as depressing as the moment, yesterday morning, when I caught myself nodding in vigorous agreement with Tim Collins, MP. The Conservative spokesman on education is, for those not au fait with his work, the reality version of the fictional character still known as "Tory Boy", despite the Tories declaring the word "Tory" out of bounds earlier this week.

Admittedly, and assuming the TV make-up artists haven't scaled new heights of cosmetic wizardry, Mr Collins lacks the volcanic acne of Harry Enfield's archetype. Nor does he lisp. However, to gaze upon that smug countenance and to hear the note of blithe certainty in his voice is to be transported back in time to a festering 1984 Home Counties bedroom, occupied by a loner adolescent enslaved to an unsettling psycho-sexual relationship with a Margaret Thatcher poster and a virulent hatred of striking miners.

The one personal detail widely known about Mr Collins - and if you didn't see this coming, shame on you - is that he is an obsessive fan of Dr Who. So the ability to give a coherent quote about school dinners on Wednesday, the traumatic day on which Christopher Eccleston officially turned in his sonic screwdriver, suggests a tungsten core not apparent to the naked eye. That the quote nailed the issue so perfectly does him even greater credit.

"After eight years in office, 10 education Bills, four secretaries of state and a five-year education plan," observed the wannabe Time Lord, "it is breathtakingly cynical for Tony Blair suddenly to claim he is passionate about the schools' meal service just because a celebrity chef has made a television programme about it."

Phil Willis of the Liberal Democrats offered a more succinct version of the same thought, saying it was sad that it had taken "a celebrity chef to get the Government to act".

While they are both broadly correct, the pedantic English teacher, in a moment of impatience caused by Turkey Twizzler-induced dyspepsia, might be tempted to put his red pen through the word "chef", and add the comment "Verbiage!" at the side of the page. For whether or not he chooses to serve it with a jus of vinegary moral outrage and a rich tapenade of concerned parenthood, Jamie Oliver's culinary status is a red herring. This startling epiphany is about the Prime Minister's puppyish love for celebrity, and nothing else.

Were Mr Oliver's reputation as a cook even vaguely relevant to this volte-face, we would be obliged to dwell on the menu at his own restaurant, Fifteen, in Nathan Barley's home patch of Hoxton. The Blairs themselves love eating at Fifteen, once formally denying that an enormous bill there had been graciously waived. If that denial can be believed (and it did come from the No 10 press office), one begins to see how having to halve the rental on their Bayswater house must have hurt, for a dinner at Fifteen would leave the family budget in trouble for a long time.

A glance at the restaurant's website reveals that the vegetarian tasting menu is £50 a head, while no à la carte main course squeezes in under the £20 barrier. When criticised for a pricing policy which has struck restaurant critics as cheeky for a chef who is good but far from great, Mr Oliver explains that all profits go to charity (his own admirable one, which trains young people in deprived urban areas).

Even so, while removing our hats to this ersatz Robin Hoodery, and without doubting his sincerity for a moment, it does seem mildly ironic to find a geezer who charges £10 for tomatoes on toast ("sunny winter tomatoes on bruschetta", to be technical) and £24 for a small fillet of sea bass, lecturing the nation about the need to spend an extra few pence per child per lunch.

The Prime Minister sees no contradiction, however, and declares that "we have been working on this for a long time". Even if so, one wonders whether a team of the country's most respected nutritionists, working round the clock and with a petition signed by ten million, would have brought the seeds of this lengthy project to such a swift and juicy fruition. Only, you suspect, if they each had a popular TV show, £15m in the bank and at least one grandma known to them as Tiger.

Mr Blair's adoration of those twin modern deities, celebrity and liquid wealth, is, of course, nothing knew. Within months of taking power, he was smarming up to Noel Gallagher with quips about cocaine use at that hideous Cool Britannia bash, and ever since has proved himself the champion stage door Johnny of global statesmen.

In recent weeks alone, he has posed with Bono and Vera Duckworth from Coronation Street, who seemed to recoil from his kiss, and taken time away from the cares of state to ring a departing radio DJ to wish him luck. The miracle is that he doesn't appear alongside Peter Kay, little Ronnie Corbett and Bernie Clifton's comedy ostrich in the video for Is This The Way To Amarillo?

Those known to the PM as "the sneerers" view all this as a calculated attempt to seduce the electorate by association with those who fill tabloid gossip columns and Hello! spreads, but I suspect this reverence for fame and wealth is one of the few genuine things about him. He himself has spent his entire post-pubescent life chasing audiences, whether as school actor, college singer, barrister or politician, and his envy of Oxford contemporaries who have made fortunes is well recorded.

Somehow, for all the mixing with presidents and monarchs, for all the standing ovations in Congress, he has stayed the ingénue whose head is forever turned by proximity to the rich and celebrated. In a way, this is rather endearing, and since we live in a celebocracy, it adroitly captures the spirit of the age.

And yet, and yet ... there is clearly something indigestible, even faintly tragic, about a man with no reverse gear who can spend eight years merrily ignoring all the evidence of medicine and common sense, and take eight minutes to cave in to a well-meaning young chap off the telly.

There are tens of millions of dollars in lecture fees, endless top-of-the-bill slots on Letterman and Leno, and the adulation of a grateful hyperpower awaiting Tony Blair the minute he jacks it in.

All he reveres and desires is there across the Atlantic, where he can be a superstar in his own right, and not a hanger-on. Why he insists in prolonging the agony here is increasingly mystifying, but those of us grappling with a mid-life crisis won't be able to swallow very much more of this unwitting lionising of Tory Boy.

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