Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?

Most of us have experienced the discomfort of watching a friend go off the rails. At first his oddities are dismissed as eccentricities. An absurd assertion, a lunatic conviction, a sudden enthusiasm or unreasonable fear, are explained as perhaps due to tiredness, or stress, or natural volatility. We do not want to face the truth that our friend has cracked up. Finally we can deny it no longer — and then it seems so obvious: the explanation, in retrospect, of so much we struggled to reconcile.

Sometimes the realisation comes fast and suddenly. It did for me at university when my Arab fellow student Ahmed, who for months had been warning me of the conspiracies of which he suspected we might be victims, pulled me into his room to show me the death-ray he could see shining through his window. It was somebody’s porch-light. Likewise, the madness of King George III, which came in spells, was undeniable when it came. At other times the realisation is a slow, sad dawning of the obvious. Sometimes it is a friend about whom we worry. Sometimes it is a prime minister.

I will accept the charge of discourtesy, but not of flippancy, when I ask whether Tony Blair may now have become, in a serious sense of that word, unhinged.

Genius and madness are often allied, and nowhere is this truer than in political leadership. Great leaders need self-belief in unnatural measure. Simple fraudsters are rumbled early, but great leaders share with great confidence tricksters a capacity to be more than persuaded, but inhabited, by their cause. Almost inevitably, an inspirational leader spends important parts of his life certain of the uncertain, convinced of the undemonstrable.

So do the mentally ill. It can be extremely difficult to distinguish between a person who is sticking bravely to a difficult cause whose truth is far from obvious, and a person who is going crazy. It took us quite a while to explain David Icke’s beliefs in the only useful way in which they could be explained — and he was on the political fringe. A national leader commands vastly more respect and will be given the benefit of many more doubts than Mr Icke ever was. Colleagues, commentators and the wider public are usually late to face up to evidence that the boss has gone berserk, even though the evidence may have been around for quite some time.

There are good reasons for this. To call somebody mad is bad manners even when fair comment. To tackle your opponent’s argument by questioning his sanity can look like a childish copping-out from sensible discussion. How can the victim answer back?

But the charge is sometimes germane. It may become the only thing worth considering. Winston Churchill had lost the plot long before the proper public discussion this deserved got under way. And I myself believe that one of my political heroes, Margaret Thatcher, began to lose her mental balance well before the end, and before those close to her allowed themselves to consider this explanation of her behaviour. For me the suspicion first dawned when the then Prime Minister devised for the Lord Mayor’s banquet a dress with such an extravagant train that she needed someone to help her with it into the Mansion House. This was when she was beginning to refer to herself as “we”, and treating friends who warned her of her fate as treacherous. A telltale of incipient insanity is when the victim begins to take a Manichaean view of the universe.

There are good reasons why those at the top can go quietly bonkers before their inferiors wake up to the warning signs. The first is obviously deference. “The Madness of King Tony” might — I accept — seem an impertinent way of discussing our leader during a war when, whatever application it may have in Tony Blair’s case, it applies to Saddam Hussein in spades.

Beyond deference, however, those at the top of the pyramid who are anxious to impress us with truths which are not obvious have another powerful weapon at their disposal. They can credibly claim to know more than we can be told. To the man in the street, the most potent of Mr Blair’s arguments for invading Iraq is that he and George W. Bush are in possession of special intelligence which supports their stand but which cannot be divulged. And no doubt that is true. The question is about the amount of support such intelligence lends, not its existence.

Note from your own experience, as well as from the history books, how those with a claim which sounds incredible tend to support it by claiming a private source of information they are unable to share. Joan of Arc heard voices. Ahmed said he could feel the lethal qualities of the apparent porch-light and reminded me that his enemies would obviously decoy the ignorant by disguising death-rays in this way. One or another version of God has been a time-honoured way for madcap leaders to give their actions an authority not apparent to the five senses of their audiences. Cornered by reality, “private sources” are the last refuge of the deluded.

Is Mr Blair among them? Let me outline some of my grounds for worry. Any one of these grounds might be dismissed as negligible, or indicative of nothing more sinister than conviction; but cumulatively I find them worrying.

Mr Blair has stopped sounding like a career politician. He has lost the professional polish of a man doing a job, and developed that fierce, quiet intensity which, from long experience of dealing with mad constituents, I know that the slightly cracked share with the genuinely convinced. He has lost his feel for whom to confront, or when and where, and puts himself into situations (like the slow handclapping by anti-war women) which do not assist his case. Historians may point to Mr Blair’s private — but publicised — audience with the Pope as an early sign of a dawning unrealism about the perceptions of others. Did he this week stop for a moment to think what impression would be made on grieving parents by his wild-eyed suggestion (based on misinformation) that two British soldiers had been executed by the Iraqis in cold blood?

Blair’s long-standing tendency to compartmentalise logic (a habit all politicians share to some degree) is now being pushed to extremes. The speeches the “old” Europeans are making — about giving Iraq more time, accepting gradual progress and not sticking to a literal interpretation of earlier demands — are exactly the speeches Mr Blair himself gives (persuasively) in defence of letting the IRA off the decommissioning hook.

This logic-chopping alarms. The Prime Minister has lost his sense of how his indignation at Iraqi brutality jars, coming from someone attacking a country whose puny forces are grotesquely outgunned by ours. His anger at the French (whose position has been consistent and identical to that which Blair held until a year ago) is inexplicable to those of us who are not doctors. He displays a demented capacity to convince himself that it is the other guy who is cheating.

He has started saying things which are not only unsustainable, but palpably absurd. The throwaway remark to Parliament that he would ignore Security Council vetoes which were “capricious” or “unreasonable” was more than ill-considered: coming from a trained lawyer it was stark, staring bonkers. It was breathtaking. For risibility I would bracket it with Ahmed’s death-ray. The whole country should have been crying with laughter. That the British media should have been mesmerised into reporting him in any other way still leaves me dumbfounded. No sane lawyer could have said what Blair said.

He keeps retreating into a hopeless, desperate optimism: another sign of lunacy. He seems to have promised the Americans he could deliver Europe, and told the Europeans he could tame America. There was scant ground for hope on the first score and none on the second. The belief that irreconcilables can be reconciled by one’s personal contacts and powers of persuasion is a familiar delusion among people who are not quite right in the head. While each futile promise is in the process of being demonstrated to be undeliverable, he goes into a sort of nose-tapping, “watch this space” denial. When finally the promise is abandoned he turns insouciantly away — and makes a new promise.

This week he has been promising to sort out the Americans, and persuade them to let the United Nations supervise the post-conflict administration of Iraq. He is probably telling the Americans he can sort out the Security Council. He can do neither. Meanwhile, he has forgotten that his previous position was that the coalition partners invaded as agents of the UN anyway, so it isn’t up to Washington to give permission. Any bank manager used to dealing with bankrupts with a pathological shopping habit who have severed contact with arithmetic will recognise the optimism.

Have the rest of the Cabinet tumbled yet to the understanding that this may not be about Iraq at all, but about the Prime Minister? My guess is that those closest to Mr Blair must be beginning to wonder privately. It is time people pooled their doubts.