The Sketch: Callaghan legacy that PM dare not name

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Twenty years ago, a friend of mine reported that her mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My friend said: "It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine reported that her mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My friend said: "It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

Death makes us all selfish, I fear, or maybe it just makes us more like ourselves. That may be worse: Tony Blair's tribute to Lord Callaghan was unpleasantly self-regarding. He began with what promised to be a review of the late prime minister's life. It turned out to be a pre-election endorsement of New Labour's record in government. The speech went from one New Labour trope to the next (I counted seven, there were probably more), as he went about stitching Old Labour into New, and broadcasting the late lord's personal endorsement of everything the Project had achieved.

The faces along the front bench registered very little. They were all miles away, I dare say, on this, the day the election was supposed to have been called. The Prime Minister was supposed to be up at the despatch box denouncing the opposition's values and history and yet here they were being dragged back into the shadowy memories of national decline, the winter of discontent and subcontracting the economic management of the country to the IMF. Those aren't the subliminals the Government wants, not now, not for anything.

So he made the most of unpromising material. Jim Callaghan was the first proponent of education "for the many not the few". In the matter of Europe, "he never confused patriotism with narrow nationalism". He saw that it was "in our strong national interest to be at the heart of Europe". He was "delighted by our debt relief programme and the Commission for Africa". Twice Mr Blair referred to the problems Jim Callaghan "inherited" from previous governments. He was entirely on board with "social justice and economic stability" and his "goals and enduring values are shared by us all - at least on this side of the House".

That last was perhaps the least. But in the Prime Minister's defence, at least he didn't write the speech himself. Gwyneth Dunwoody spoke affectionately and humorously of her relations with the deceased, praising above all his decency, honesty, fairness and love of the House of Commons. The way these were intertwined in Mrs Dunwoody's mind made Mr Blair look quite hard at the floor for a few moments.

"He was a good prime minister," Mr Blair said, "and given time he would have been a great one". There was one particular achievement Mr Blair didn't mention, of course, perhaps the most enduring of all. It was Jim Callaghan who made Mrs Thatcher possible. And without Mrs Thatcher there never would have been Tony Blair. It's just as well there's no more space, I can see I've lost my last remaining readers.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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