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http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,175-1289888_1,00.html

Lies, damned lies and Blair's brand of pure showmanship

MATTHEW PARRIS

If an historic euro-referendum were won in 2006 Mr Blair would go before the last hurrah had died

IS THERE no limit to the credulity of the British media? Tony Blair tells us how he sees the next stage in his political career; and here we all are, scribbling away excitedly as though this were now the likelihood.

Holy cow, what else is the guy going to say? This is a man whose eternally triangular relationship with the twin sisters Truth and Belief is by now surely a matter of public record; the man who only this week told us “I only know what I believe”, and whose beliefs are as the clouds scudding across our autumn sky: forming and re-forming into fantastical shapes – dragons, cows, electoral reform; Saddam and Osama arm-in-arm; the rescue of Africa.

This is the man who believes that the war against terrorism is a simple question of Good versus Evil, and that George W. Bush will force Ariel Sharon to the negotiating table; a man who believed that there would be a referendum on the single currency in his second term and now believes that there will be a referendum on the European constitution in his third.

This is a man who believes all kinds of things: believes them before breakfast and unbelieves them by lunch.

So what on earth makes anyone suppose that, just because in some sleepless hour before dawn Mr Blair has concluded that he must urgently declare a set of long-term intentions, the world has been given any clearer picture now than we had last Saturday of what is likely to happen when we and he are all half a decade older? Listen, guys. Just because Tony Blair says he will do something, doesn’t mean he will. Just because he believes something now, doesn’t mean he will next year.

Columnists should not bore their readers by reminding them of yellowing columns we once wrote and I try not to make a habit of it; but indulge me just this once. It must be six months or more since, on this page, I wrote that as the general election approached Mr Blair would prove incapable of maintaining his silence on how long he planned to continue after he had won it. I predicted that the Tories would think up a slogan like “Vote Blair, get Brown” and that it would resonate; and that eventually Mr Blair would be discomfited into making some kind of a statement about his intentions.

I added that at first he might obfuscate, but that careful obfuscation would only arouse suspicion; and people would think it constitutionally offensive for him to run for a full term if he would not undertake to serve a full term.

I said that in the end (and before election day) Mr Blair would have to promise to serve a full term, whether or not he was sure about doing so, just to kill speculation.

And so it has happened. Mr Blair tried the obfuscations: he came up with a clutch of verbal formulae all calculated to give the impression that he was “up for” a full term, without quite saying he would serve it. He tried protesting that you don’t enter a general election without being “prepared” to serve a full term. But he found that such foxiness fooled nobody. The press and the Tories smelt his unease.

That unease has grown. My mistake was to predict that Mr Blair would be forced off the fence during the election campaign itself. In fact it has happened sooner.

The final stage of my reasoning was this: I guessed that the reason that the Prime Minister was so reluctant to get off the fence was that Gordon Brown was reassured by his neighbour’s reluctance to promise to stay; and that once Mr Blair was forced into doing so, Mr Brown’s wrath would be terrible.

We shall see. I suspect that Mr Blair has slipped off the fence so early because his relationship with Mr Brown has gone beyond repair faster than we expected. Mr Blair has nothing left to lose in that quarter now, and is gambling on Mr Brown storming around for a few weeks, then bottling out.

Again, we shall see. But do let’s stop reporting that Mr Blair has now “revealed” that he “will” serve a full third term. The verb “revealed” and the simple future tense are for use in the realm of facts. The realm in which we are dealing here is the realm of hopes.

No, that’s too kind to Mr Blair. His precise words were, we can be sure, very carefully chosen, and they were these: “If I am elected I would serve a full term.” As an undertaking, this is impossible and he must know it. Immediately after a full term comes a general election. You cannot go into a general election without a leader prepared to form a government on the other side of it. Well, you could, I suppose; but try this for a campaign slogan: “Vote Labour on Thursday, and leave it to the Labour MPs you elect to choose our next prime minister over the following weekend.”

Sorry to be pedantic, but it interests me that Mr Blair should not have bothered - even in the phrase he carefully designed to achieve his purpose - to tell what is quite the truth; and not supposed that anyone would notice or care. What his statement must be be assumed to imply, I suppose, is that once about three quarters of his third term are spent – probably in early 2008 – he will resign and let the Parliamentary Labour Party choose another leader, whom the Queen will ask to form an administration. This will give the new prime minister about a year to put his stamp on the office. He will need all of that if he is to impress upon a weary electorate the wisdom of giving his party an unprecedented fourth term.

So - again, sorry to nit-pick - we are now talking about Mr Blair standing down after approximately three years.

But (you may remember) we were going to have his promised referendum on the European constitution during (probably) his second year. Those of you who believe this promise are therefore looking at an historic euro-referendum in 2006. It will be won or lost; here there is no Third Way. If won (and what a fantastic achievement that would be for Mr Blair, starting from where we are now), do you honestly suppose he would then piddle around in Downing Street for another year or two, then suddenly slip away? Of course not. He would go before the last hurrah dies. This man has, if nothing else, a sense of theatre.

And if lost? It defies belief that he would linger wretchedly on, or be allowed to, missing his chance to resign in high-principled dudgeon.

Some of you, no doubt, never believed the referendum promise in the first place. But you will not be among those trying to work out how Mr Blair will keep his “full third term” promise. You will have discounted that already.

No, it’s all just guff, all just lurching around in the lines of least resistance. But it is done with such a marvellous appearance of sincerity and confidence. Nobody has a keener eye and ear for precisely how the show is playing to tonight’s audience, than the actor-politician now in Downing Street. Yet seldom has a Prime Minister been more at sea when he contemplates tomorrow.

This stupendous marriage of dazed, punch-drunk, pillar-to-post political navigation, with cool-nerved and professional showmanship of the highest quality, is remarkable as a psychological phenomenon; but I am afraid it is not unknown. Indeed it is almost a syndrome, as anyone will testify who has wasted months, sometimes years, of his life supporting someone who turns out to have been off his rocker all along.

When you keep trying to believe somebody yet know you really ought to cease the attempt - when arrangement after arrangement you make with him goes wrong and it never seems to be your fault, yet still you try to excuse, try to believe that there could have been an explanation - and when each time he seems to have let you down yet again, he comes up with so persuasive a line of patter that you teeter on the edge of giving him one last, umpteenth, chance . . . then here is a handy hint. Commit to memory one small but palpable example of a time when - no denying it - he cheated.

With Mr Blair, I have. At his 1999 party conference within a couple of years of being elected prime minister for his first term, Tony Blair promised this: “Everyone within the next two years will be able to see an NHS dentist just by phoning NHS Direct.”

I don’t mind that he said it without quite knowing how he would deliver it. Politicians do that kind of thing. I mind that he did say it; did not make any serious attempt to deliver it; has never bothered to explain when he might or why he can’t; and presumably just thinks we’ll all put it from our minds, as he has. No wonder this man is forever eager that we should “move on”

Plainly our Prime Minister - whose conference speech on Tuesday included phrases such as “stressed out” and “don’t go there” - has taken to drawing his idiom from American sitcoms. We should do likewise. To the remark “If I am elected I would serve a full third term”, the appropriate response is “Yeah, right.”