The Blair effect was there, but the sadness was real

The Prime Minister's phrase `the People's Princess' more than matched the mood of the nation. It shaped it
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Under the great flood of emotion and public unity which Diana's death seems to have evoked, a small, cynical eddy begins to swirl: has New Labour done it again? Has the Blair effect turned the death of a princess into part of the great modernisation project? Could the Queen and her family have been made to look stiff-backed, Edwardian and even uncaring this week precisely through contrast with the modernity of the Government?

Rewind, if you will, to Sunday morning. Look again at the words the Prime Minister used when he paid his tribute. What was the real message?

"I feel like everyone else in this country today. I am utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana's family, particularly her two sons. Our heart goes out to them." (Note the officially wrong "Princess Diana". Since she lost here HRH, people like the Prime Minister are supposed to say "Diana, Princess of Wales", but Tony sticks to the expression the people use.)

Our heart? Our prayers? If Margaret Thatcher had used language such as this she would have been derided for believing she was the Queen. But when Tony Blair did it, the meaning of his words could not have been more different. What he was telling us was that he was one of us. We, the nation, not we, the establishment.

No wonder so many of those interviewed outside the royal palaces have spoken of how the Prime Minister's words had moved them. Ever so subtly, he was shaping the mood of the occasion, even infiltrating himself gently into the minds of the mourners. Take a look at how his statement ended: "People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana ... She was the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever."

The People's Princess. It may seem now that the phrase was perfectly judged to match the mood of the nation. But it did more than that. It shaped it. And whether by serendipity or by design, what it said was that Diana was "one of us". Ergo, she was not one of "them", not part of the distant, formal body into which she married.

The impression was strengthened by the news - it just slipped out, of course - that the Palace had asked Labour officials for help with the funeral arrangements. The thing was, they knew how to handle a major, modern funeral such as this because they had organised one for John Smith just three years ago. And, it was stressed, the royal obsequies did not cover this eventuality.

As the queues lengthened in The Mall and as the flowers piled up ever higher, the Prime Minister was visible where the royals were remote. There was business at Downing Street, though all done in an appropriately respectful fashion. A meeting with the Trades Union Congress had been "sombre and business-like", a spokesman said. A conference on education was to be "low-key". Midweek, though, as the feelings of anger about the strictness of royal protocol built up (Why no half-mast flag over Buckingham Palace? Why no sign of any royals coming to London to pay their respects by Diana's coffin?), Number 10 was forced to back-pedal.

The last impression anyone would want to give would be one of tension between the Government and the Palace. So Mr Blair, who had phoned Prince Charles on Sunday to offer his condolences, was back on the line again the other night giving support.

Briefing the media on the call, his spokesman said the press could not expect the Royal Family to "jump in and be extras in a media event". The press was being unfair and unhelpful in criticising Prince Charles and other members of the Royal Family for not knowing how to respond to the public grief, he suggested. Of course the Palace understood the deep public sense of grief, and they were responding to it in the funeral arrangements that were being made.

Despite the supportive words, though, Mr Blair's actions continued to jar uncomfortably with those of the royals. Just after the press had been briefed, the Prime Minister told waiting television cameras that the Royal Family were "trying to cope in a tremendously difficult situation".

"They share our grief very much and we should respect that," he said. Note: They share our grief. Then he did something really below the belt. He walked to the end of Downing Street and comforted mourners who had gathered there. In an eerie echo of the Diana-like behaviour that apparently so irked the royals, he touched some of them on the arm and allowed himself to be clasped by the hands.

So, has the Blair machine turned even this sad event to its own purposes? If we hear a mounting chorus of calls for the modernisation of the monarchy over the next few months, should we suspect Downing Street of carefully engineering the whole thing?

No. The fact is that for once - and savour the moment, for it is a rare one - even New Labour could not take total control. Yes, Mr Blair touched the right buttons. Yes, he exercised considerable skill in doing so. But this time, something else was going on as well. The deep anger that has welled up during this week was not the simple creation of a few days' media hype and Downing Street spin. The genie that has got out of this particular bottle has been awaiting its day for far longer than that.

It is true that Mr Blair and his advisers have understood the situation well. And that is why they will tread very gently on the issue of the monarchy as time goes on. Whatever direction they do take, though, you may be sure that they will take it with one eye firmly on "our" feelings.