Never forget the splinter of ice in Mr Blair's heart

By Matthew d'Ancona (Filed: 27/07/2003)

Lord Falconer's declaration in today's Telegraph that there is "no doubt at all" of the Prime Minister's intention to serve a full third term is an astonishing intervention at a time of such political turbulence. As the Government continues to reel from the death of Dr David Kelly 10 days ago, one might expect so close an ally of Tony Blair as the Lord Chancellor to tread softly into this most delicate terrain. But not a bit of it: Lord Falconer's words are, as Gordon Brown would put it, clear and unambiguous. And it is Mr Brown who will react most strongly to the message he has been sent. As clearly as Margaret Thatcher did in 1987, Mr Blair has signalled - with his former flatmate as his messenger - his "hope to go on and on".

This provocative confidence would be striking at any time, but at this particular moment it is little short of breathtaking. The last thing Mr Blair needs, you might think, is to pick a fight about his likely departure date - an issue which has caused more pain and recrimination than any other in the nine years of his party leadership. But one should never underestimate the ruthless determination of this Prime Minister, the icy stubbornness that lurks beneath the grinning emollience. Now more than ever, in the thick of the Kelly scandal, as the joints of the Government creak and groan, Mr Blair wants everyone to know who is boss - and, more to the point, who will be boss for the foreseeable future.

As the Prime Minister waves a defiant fist, his praetorian guard dwindles to nothingness. Alastair Campbell, who has made more supposed farewell performances than Sinatra, does seem, at last, to have decided to go. Even now, he will stay in Mr Blair's official entourage as an "unpaid consultant" - a measure of the Prime Minister's dependency upon him. But to focus too closely on Mr Campbell's career plans has always been an error. The notion that his departure will transform the way the Government conducts business is to confuse symptom with cause.

Mr Campbell's rough-and-tumble tabloid style is his own, but he was never a rogue agent. Even at his most demotic, his most aggressive, his most manipulative, he was always doing his master's bidding, or what he knew his master wanted but could not demand explicitly. Indeed, when he and the Prime Minister clashed, it was less often over "spin" than over principle, especially education policy (Mr Campbell has ever been a much more passionate believer in traditional Labour Party values than Mr Blair). Those who regard Mr Campbell as a monster should not neglect the Dr Frankenstein who first sent a million volts surging through his body.

This fundamental truth about the Prime Minister - Campbell was his creature, not his Svengali - explains much of his own behaviour since Dr Kelly's death. As I wrote last week, Mr Blair and his aides grasped at once that the suicide of the MoD adviser had the capacity to transform the political landscape - just as Vince Foster's death in 1993 disfigured the Clinton presidency. For the first 36 hours, the Prime Minister was in a daze, horrified and uncertain about what lay ahead. And then, just as quickly, he snapped out of it. It was as though he had disappeared into himself briefly, asked whether he could live with what had happened - and decided that he most certainly could.

To be blunt: my sense is that the most senior members of the Government feel much less guilty about Dr Kelly than they are obliged to suggest in public. What has certainly emerged is that he was not quite the timid innocent that he seemed to be on our television screens, as he mumbled his testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee on July 15. Dr Kelly was a man of great professional acumen but also one who had considerable experience with the media. Indeed, he admitted to the committee that he had "a strange background" for an egghead in that he had been "asked on many occasions" by the UN and the British Government to brief journalists. He had, he testified, stayed in touch with the media pack, with and without official authorisation.

Dr Kelly was, in other words, that rarest of creatures: a spin doctor with a doctorate. In his field, he was regarded by journalists - and clearly regarded himself - as an oracle, a sounding board and a good source of gossip. The more we learn about him, the more plausible it seems that he had indeed formed a strong view about the worth (or worthlessness) of the September Iraq dossier, a view which he felt entitled to share with his contacts in the media. I doubt he expected the incendiary consequences of his briefing. But I also suspect that he had a fairly clear idea of what he was doing when he spoke to the BBC's Andrew Gilligan, Susan Watts and Gavin Hewitt.

It suits ministers now, of course, to present Dr Kelly as a traduced ingenu, a humble civilian taken to the cleaners by wicked hacks. But they know he was no such thing. They have always known. And that is why the MoD press office so brazenly assisted journalists who were fishing for the name of Mr Gilligan's source: reporters were invited to offer their own shortlist of candidates or, in one case, actually given a shortlist. The unmasking of Dr Kelly was less a Government leak than a grotesque Whitehall parody of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? In effect, journalists were told they could call a friend, or ask the audience, as long as they came up with the right answer. The quizmasters felt the scientist deserved no better: he who lives by spin, dies by spin. There is, of course, horror throughout the Government that, in Dr Kelly's case, this New Labour adage turned out to be literally true. But there is less moral agonising than you might think.

Dr Kelly's death will certainly cast a bleak shadow over the third act of Blairism. The Prime Minister already looks a much more isolated figure. Even at summer's crest, there is an autumnal feel to Number 10. But it is wrong to think that Mr Blair has been emotionally capsized by this tragedy, his political radar destroyed. Remember: there is not a shred of sentimentality in this Prime Minister. This is the man, after all, who last month sacked Derry Irvine, the man who introduced him to his wife, without compunction or pity. His leadership of the Labour Party arose out of a death, or, more accurately, his response to one. When John Smith died in May 1994, Mr Blair's lieutenants were working the phones on his behalf within hours (I can vouch for that), while Gordon Brown busied himself with writing obituaries. One caught a glimpse even then of what Graham Greene called the "splinter of ice in the heart". I do not mean to say Mr Blair was not upset by Mr Smith's death; he was. I do not mean to say that he was not shaken to the core by Dr Kelly's suicide; he was.

And yet - as Lord Falconer's remarks today make clear - the Prime Minister gets over these things. Even as he urges the nation to behave with decorum in honour of Dr Kelly, you can see the defiant questions etched into his face. Why should I stop now? What will posterity say about me? Why should I hand it on a plate to Gordon? The sense of destiny, the preternatural self-belief, the bitter resentment of his foes: all these are undimmed within Mr Blair. And over those things - the hard core of this hard politician - death has no dominion.