Mr Blair has taken a few hits but shows no bruises

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The Independent Online
Tccording to David Lloyd George's secretary A J Sylvester (who had been hired on account of his proficiency at shorthand), the old rascal would make a speech by first trying out various political topics of the day on his audience. When one of them made the tuning fork hum, he would devote the rest of his speech to it.

Thus he would mention, say, the Boer War. No interest: a long way from home. Then he would give the landlords a run. No good: they had already heard quite enough about landlords from L G. And then there were the church schools. These were more promising: mutters of indignation could be heard from the largely Nonconformist audience. The great Liberal would then make a lengthy speech on education and the methods of financing it.

I have no doubt that Sylvester honestly believed this and related it to a friend of mine, who in turn passed it on to me. What I doubt is whether Lloyd George made his speeches by these means. I suspect he had a pretty good idea of what he was going to say before he started saying it. This is the way most orators have operated, even in the days before concealed auto-cues and press handouts.

But while Sylvester's account is a doubtful guide to political speaking, it is a convincing analysis of the political process. An unexpected incident can alter everything - as the great Tommy Cooper used to say, just like that. Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation was unsurprising but his resignation speech was cataclysmic in its effects, which can be felt to this day.

The last few weeks have seen two less dramatic events. Both reflect adversely on Mr Tony Blair and his government, though chiefly on Mr Blair. Like many leaders, he gives his government a wide berth. This is not to say that the Conservatives have much chance of winning the election - unless they have the sense to elect Mr Kenneth Clarke, ideally between six months and a year before the probable polling day, which brings us to November 2000 as the ideal time for a change.

Nor is it to say that Mr Blair is in any danger from his party or his cabinet, though in this connection we should remember that Margaret Thatcher was dislodged when she had a majority of over 90. Those terrible events also destroyed the belief of a whole generation of political scientists that any prime minister in good health and the possession of an adequate parliamentary majority was in a position of invulnerability. Mr Blair is unlikely to meet the same end. Still, one more piece of veneer has been chipped away from the cabinet. Or, as Robert Browning put it: "Never glad confident morning again!"

The first of these events was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Casually incinerating Chinamen was, we were given to understand, of a different moral order from giving the same treatment to innocent Serbians. It was infinitely worse. Things, we were told, were out of control. But morality had little to do with the matter. Nor had control, not really: for the errors which had led to the bombing of the embassy had been evident since the start of the campaign.

It was about power and fear. People who had been happy to bully Serbia, in the confident expectation that Mr Slobodan Milosevic would not drop any bombs on southern Italy, whence the raids largely originate, or on southern Belgium, where they are planned, were less content about getting on the wrong side of the Chinese. They have the ships, the men and the odd nuclear weapon too. Why Mr Milosevic has not had a go at putting ordnance of some kind into the skies I do not know. He must have aeroplanes of some kind somewhere. No doubt he knows his own business best.

In the House on Monday, Ms Diane Abbott asked Mr George Robertson: "Are there no maps available to Nato forces showing them the sites of foreign embassies in Belgrade?" In his reply, Mr Robertson said: "Facetious comments about targeting ... are not very appropriate in the present tragic circumstances." What this really meant was that Mr Robertson did not know the answer and was embarrassed not only by his ignorance but also by the event itself. It seemed to me that Ms Abbott's question, however embarrassing it may have been, was perfectly sensible and deserved a proper answer.

The second of the events to which I refer was the result of the elections to the Welsh Assembly. I put this result above the one in Scotland. Most observers had expected Labour to fail to secure an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. The bad dream in Westminster, or Millbank rather, was that the SNP might emerge as the largest single party or - horror of horrors - even the possessor of an absolute majority itself. Neither happened.

In my own native land, by contrast, Labour was expected to win an absolute majority. The Welsh people or, at any rate, the voters of what used to be industrial South Wales, the faithful workhorses of the People's Party (who nevertheless retained their loyalty to the old Liberal Party for longer than their equivalents in England), would once again turn out and mark their ballot papers in the expected manner. This, however, they declined to do. Old Dobbin was going to have a rest. The citizens voted instead for the nationalist candidates.

The representatives of Old Labour say that Mr Blair and his conscious appeal to Middle England, that mythical kingdom ruled over by superannuated executives of the Daily Mail, are less appealing north of the Bristol Channel. Not a bit of it, the inhabitants of Millbank reply: for generations the people of the region were ruled by Old Labour councillors as corrupt as those of north-east England, if not more so. Now they were taking their revenge.

The members of the assembly, or some of them, promise to rescind the ban on beef on the bone. This I hope they do, not merely to annoy Mr Blair (as well as Dr Jack Cunningham and Mr Nick Brown), but also because the ban was a monstrous invasion of liberty which should not have been introduced in the first place. Scotland's initial assertion of independence, by contrast - the repeal of the provision requiring students to pay tuition fees - has collapsed at the first indication of displeasure from London and the latest exhibition of diplomacy from Mr Donald Dewar.

Those poor boobies who put their trust in the Liberal Democrats may be more reluctant to cast their votes for them after the party's compromise with Mr Dewar. One of its new members in Scotland is, I see, Mr Keith Raffan. He used to be Conservative member for Delyn in North Wales. Everyone seems to have forgotten this. He says he will never vote for tuition fees. Good for him! But he may never be given the chance to vote at all. So much for proportional representation, whose capricious consequences have been evident to some of us for ages.

It is all very odd. We are fighting and losing - we are manifestly not winning - a war. And we are in the process of dismantling the United Kingdom. And yet, walking along those empty Westminster corridors, not a soul in sight apart from the odd policeman on duty to say hello to, one feels that nothing is happening. Everyone has gone home, with the connivance or under the instructions of the Whips. Perhaps this is Mr Blair's real triumph.