Matthew Norman: Hypnotised by the Messiah of Manchester

He led the Children of Millbank out of opposition and sustained them with the manna of electoral success
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The Independent Online

He was, as even his bitterest detractor should have the good grace to accept, superb. Utterly, utterly superb. Nine years ago in Westminster Abbey, his reading of the lesson at the service for Diana was the precocious child's riot of over-breathy fake emotion as he spake unto us of putting away childish things .. a cushion-biting display of infantile centre-staging. This week in Manchester, delivering his own political eulogy, Tony Blair illustrated how far, as a Ciceronian actor-orator, he has come.

Less, he has come to understand, is more. So there were no tears from him, merely a manly hint that they were there queuing patiently behind the eyeballs for a private moment while it was left it to his audience to well up in public.

Who watching Tony Blair this week didn't at least flirt with the trap the speech was so beautifully judged to set, and wonder why he has to leave at all? For everything we have come to relish, often in spite of ourselves, about the great peacock charlatan of global politics was there on stage.

He was, in the most understated way, in Messiah mode once again. He was Jesus Christ explaining why, for all the pleas that he remain among us in earthly form, he must embrace his death and thus secure the future of mankind. It's hard to let go, he said, but it is also right to let go, and the camera cut to those mourning that after so brief a resurrection from that recent crucifixion, he now heads towards the Ascension with such serene tristesse.

Jesus wept not, as I say, but the disciples did, and the camera picked out Tessa, Patricia and above all John of Glasgow, whose glistening eyes brought to mind Nora Ephron's injunction never to trust a man who cries easily, for he cries only for himself.

As for the Judas to his rear, him the PM lavishly forgave for he knew not what he did. Yet even as he poured molten praise upon Gordon Brown's head, his rock Peter was touring the bulletins to knife the Chancellor between the shoulder blades. Never forget that behind the Jesusy façade lurks a healthy measure of the Jewish God about Mr Blair, albeit he prefers to outsource his vengeful wrath to the Mandelsons and Campbells, the Milburn-Byerses and, of course, to Cherie.

When he does stray more palpably into the Old Testament, it is not as Jehovah he tends to appear, but as Moses. He had led the Children of Millbank out of the slavery of opposition, he reminded us, and sustained them with the manna of electoral success. And now they stand within sight of the Promised Land - or at least the land he has promised us, of full employment, no NHS waiting lists and ultimate victory in the war against terror - which he is cruelly fated never to enter himself.

Yet all this was done with such lightness of touch, such immaculate timing, and such smooth transitions through the gears of comedy, pathos, passion, sincerity and, ultimately, selfless bequeathal of the future that the egomaniacal messages within it were subliminal, and all the more potent, of course, for that. It was, as I say, nothing less than magnificent.

So much, then, for the aural experience. Reading the speech in print, meanwhile, swiftly unveils the familiar cocktail of evasions, omissions, half truths and plain whoppers by which he will be more icily judged by tomorrow's historians.

Some of the most chutxpahdic flourishes were positively endearing. The Parable of the Sons Canvassing in Sedgefield (taken, you assume, from the Apocrypha) was a classic of the kind, moving smoothly from the self-deprecatory (the householder telling Euan how awful his Dad is) to the self-justifying (householder later consoling Nicky that he didn't mean a word of it). Disguised as an expression of love for the British people, the true moral of this was that beneath their ritualistically stated contempt, the British public love him in a way they won't fully recognise until he is gone.

Many claims were plain daft. "Not a day goes by, or an hour in the day," said the man who has so resolutely eschewed Mrs Thatcher's precedent of sending a handwritten letter of condolence to the family of every soldier killed in action, in which he doesn't think reflect on British troops in war zones. As for "I love this party," about that fiction nothing further need be said.

And others still, so pleasing to the ear, are nauseating to the eye, none more so than the insistence that his adventurism abroad has done nothing to imperil British lives at home. Here, once again, one has little choice but to fall back on the catch-all sociopath defence that he believed it during the act of intoning it.

Examining the text, every other line belongs in the realm of fantasy and delusion - the notion that no one foresaw the depletion of our natural energy reserves in the prehistoric age of 1997, at the trivial end; and, at the other extreme, the tragicomic assertion that he will use his remaining days to bring peace and goodwill to the Middle East.

If he believes that, then Mr Blair is simply, as some of us have argued for years, raving mad. And yet, for all the inherent lunacy of making such a pledge, those who heard it - grizzled old political hacks along with the delegates with their beatific smiles - yielded to his rhetoric more pliantly than ever. Why should such an unparalleled election champ go at all, they asked, forgetting that he wouldn't have won at all in 2005 had he not begged the brutally sidelined Gordon Brown to come back and rescue him; and that even then his working majority was secured with a wretched 36 per cent of the popular vote on a very low turnout.

All that was lost in the mass hypnotic trance he created in the conference hall on Tuesday, and so meltingly warm was the reaction that you may be sure that his more fanciful disciples are even now musing as to how his retirement might, like so many pledges before it, be nimbly sidestepped.

The only way I can imagine it, on a precedent set by Francis Urquhart, is if Gordon Brown were assassinated in a "terrorist atrocity". This scenario assumes a level of competence from our security services that probably flatters them, but suppose Gordon was taken out by an alleged suicide bomber. Then, making the ultimate self-sacrifice in a national crisis, Blair could make another positively final conference appearance, after the fashion of Barbra Streisand's annual farewell tour, next year.

In that event, he would unquestionably inform the 2007 Labour conference that he agreed to stay on, with great reluctance, only "because it's what Gordon would have wanted". And the funny, terrifying thing about the man, his madness and the supreme brilliance of his rhetoric is that, in the moment of him saying it, not only Tony Blair but the rest of us would believe it.