After my dalliance with Thabo Mbeki in Germany, I was close to upping my world leader count to 2 this past weekend. But I have to leave it at 1½, as I was in the same room as the world leader, but didn't have any direct contact with him. I saw Tony Blair deliver the Progress 10-year anniversary speech. Tony Blair is the king of the "worst week ever" tag. Too often it's been said he's reached the end, but the man walks on hot coals for sport.
Last week, junior members (Brownites presumably) of his government signed a letter asking him to step down, and seven resigned from the government as well. Hence Teflon Tony was forced to announce his departure date, within a year, or May 31 as the Sun reported.
The speech was set to be his first public appearance since being forced to make the announcement. I've seen Tony Blair on television. The man is a performer, and on that stage on Saturday, he performed. After a hearty, almost nostalgic welcome, his first sentence was, "and I haven't even gone yet." He was humorous, affable, statesmanlike even. None of the blows inflicted during the week appeared to have wounded him fatally. The man stood tall, addressed his faithful, oozing that Tony magic which brought in the first Labour government for 18-years in 1997. They don't call him Reagan's original moniker, the Great Communicator, for nothing.
He walked to the microphone, tieless, in a grey shirt and suit. The clapping and standing ovations began. I'm cynical about politics. I know how they work, and this was another chance for me, as a journalist, to sneer at them. A woman sitting almost directly in front of me must have been a strategic clapper. One of those instructed by the spin doctors to applaud at certain points during a speech, triggering other strategic clappers, and infecting the whole room. Try resisting to clap when the person next to you is trying to dislodge their hands with the ferocity of their applause. It is difficult. Or try remaining seated when everyone around you is giving the Prime Minister a standing ovation.
On his way out, walking through the aisle near where I was sitting, he shook hands and waved. Most people sitting on an aisle seat shooks hands with Bambi himself, most people wanted to. At the very back of the hall, a woman was standing with her hands by her side. And as Tony got to her, it was obvious she had no intention of shaking Tony's hand. But Tony, ever the baby kissing, people hugging statesman, grabbed the limply dangling hand and shook it with vigour. I laughed my head off. It wouldn't do his current credibility any good if he was seen to receive a snub from an audience packed with his faithful.
It felt like being present while history was being made. He had just announced that he was leaving, he was en route to being jeered at in Beirut, staged walk out at the TUC. It was probably the week that something fatal stuck to Tony's teflon. If he is forced to leave at Labour's annual conference, that would be the fatal blow, but it seems unlikely.
Such gatherings are attended by the media élite and politerati. Adam Boulton of Sky News stood with his camera team, and Steve Richards of the Indy sat on one of the back rows observing from a healthy distance. Brian Hanrahan walked around with a microphone and minidisc recorder, quizzing politicians.
The corridors of power had shrunk with so many politicians in one place. Former Bethnal Green and Bow MP, Oona King, dressed in her usual Hoxton chic way; Sadiq Khan and Dawn Butler, 2005 intake London MPs both, sat next to each other. Defence Secretary, Des Browne, arrived in his official Jag, all worthy and mighty. Hilary Benn spoke at one of the seminars, and one could see his zeal for International Development. He says he's "a Benn, not a Bennite", detaching himself from his father's radical legacy. Yup, he's no Bennite.
People have very strong feelings about Tony Blair. He has dominated the British political scene for more than a decade, straddling it like Major Kong riding on a bomb at the end of Dr Strangelove. British politics will not be the same without him, for better or worse.