Matthew Norman: We all love a plausible rogue

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Ever since the dawn of New Labour, one of my favourite points of reference for that cabal of sofa-hogging hoods has been Minder. I first made the link in print some eight years ago, very early in Mr Tony Blair's reign, about a certain Derek "Dolly" Draper.

Ever since the dawn of New Labour, one of my favourite points of reference for that cabal of sofa-hogging hoods has been Minder. I first made the link in print some eight years ago, very early in Mr Tony Blair's reign, about a certain Derek "Dolly" Draper.

Later to star in the "Dollygate" access-for-cash lobbying scandal (and later still to train, via a long spell in the Priory and a short spell flogging New Age crystals, as a psychotherapist), Dolly was Peter Mandelson's best little helper, and thus a made man within the Millbank mob.

Dolly owed his publisher Faber & Faber £500 (in the context, a monkey), and had done what's known at the Winchester Club as a runner, refusing to answer calls or reply to letters requesting repayment. The morning the Minder reference appeared in print, I reached the office to find a rendition of a novelty song on the answerphone.

If you haven't forgotten The Firm's 1982 No 14 hit "Arthur Daley ('E's Alright)", that's probably because you never heard it in the first place. Dolly knew it by heart, however, as he demonstrated by singing all three minutes-worth into the machine. I won't replicate him by trotting out the entire lyric. All that concerns us is the chorus, which runs: "Arthur Daley, little dodgy maybe ... But underneath, 'e's alright."

The reason this artless rhyming couplet comes to mind has less to do with the leaking of the Attorney General's initial advice on the legality of invading Iraq than the instant reaction to it. The first poll done after the leak reveals that, while a huge majority of those with an opinion think Mr Blair lied through his crooked teeth, they still regard him as the best of those applying for the post of British Prime Minister. The man tells whoppers and most of us know it, yet enough of us to ensure his safe return to Downing St couldn't really care less.

With the greatest respect (to borrow Jack Straw's current catch phrase) to my colleague Steve Richards and others who disagree, the sole remaining question about the Prime Minister's dishonesty is more properly a matter for a psychiatrist than a hack.

He has probably said many things on Iraq which any normal person would have known to be untrue. So if he wasn't lying when he said them, it can only be because he suffers a condition whereby he believes that the act of saying some- thing makes it true. Sociopathy is the technical term for this condition.

The sociopath, contrary to popular belief, seldom has a penchant for the gently fried internal organs of passing census-takers. Sociopaths, according to an Australian academic paper published on the internet, are "by definition at least temporarily very successful in society. These people tend to embrace a particular belief system to the exclusion of others. They have no doubts. Typically these belief systems have an internal logic".

Reading on, the portrait becomes spookily familiar. "Sociopathic individuals are extremely self-confident, intelligent, charismatic and persuasive of others as well as themselves. They create a dysfunctional culture - often dizzy and disoriented by its success. Success is proof" - and you have to say this is becoming a touch chilling - "of the accuracy of any claim they make. Words and sometimes bizarre ideas become a substitute for reality.

"They have enormous drive and ambition but few qualms about how they accomplish their objectives. They deal with conflicting evidence by selective perception ... by attacking its credibility or by demonising the messenger." (and no, the author's surname isn't Gilligan). "They can be very successful entrepreneurs."

The entrepreneur, an archetype famously hero-worshipped by this PM, brings us back to that least successful of the breed. Arthur Daley was no sociopath, but a small-time villain with big time ambitions who happily accepted himself for the rascal he was.

Originally, as the title hints, Minder was about his minder, the fundamentally honest and decent Terry McCann. But it quickly became obvious to the writers that punters aren't much taken with morally kosher fellas like McCann.

What we British really relish is a plausible rogue who can look a copper in the eye and tell him, without so much as blinking, that he came by the 3,000 hooky Blackberries in his lock-up from a geezer he met in the boozer, whose name he sadly cannot recall, and whom he's never set eyes on before or since.

If Tony Blair isn't a sociopath (and from the above, you'd be bold to dismiss it out of hand), then he has to be the Arthur Daley of warrior statesmen. When Paxo does his DCI Chisholm act, and says "look , son, we've got you bang to rights on this one, so do yourself a favour and 'fess up", Blair stares straight back and unveils the Daleyesque synthetic moral outrage that anyone could believe such wickedness of him.

Very few give him the benefit of the doubt, but many may warm to the brazen chutzpah. We're all liars to some degree. We all tell the odd porkie pie, whether it involves sexual infidelity, fiddling our expenses, telling the fuzz that 'er indoors was at the wheel to avoid those fatal extra three points on the licence, or even passing the buck for some disaster in the office.

Lying is an essential part of the survival process, at home and at work, but most of us are hopeless at it. My wife flicks her fringe when she denies forgetting to pay the Congestion Charge. I bite my bottom lip while downplaying losses at poker. Jack Straw plays for time with his "with the very greatest of respect".

Lying is exceedingly hard to do well. So how could we fail to admire the Daleys and Blairs when they show such natural talent at an art form that defeats the rest of us?

Well, it's a theory. Perhaps it isn't an especially brilliant one, but it does at least attempt to explain why this time next week Tony Blair will announce (and I'd stock up on the anti-emetics now) that the British people have said it's time to lay Iraq to rest, and let's hear not another word.

I find it painfully difficult to accept that this country is poised to re-elect a man, however odious the alternative, whom it believes misled it to war. Quite frankly, viewing it in such crude terms - as a straight choice for the public between seeing the Prime Minister as Hannibal Lector or Arthur Daley - dulls the pain a little.

And if the polls are right, the choice is made. The people have had a long, hard look, and plumped for Daley. Tony Blair, very dodgy maybe, the electoral verdict seems certain to be, but underneath 'e's alright.

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