3 MAY 1997, Page 7


Tony Blair and I chat on his aeroplane, discussing the usual accusations he faces: the Left have been deceived and muzzled, the policies are vague, debate has been sti- fled, ideals frequently changed. . . . The difference is that Mr Blair is accusing me of these sins: yes, as soon as I finally agree to take informal questions from Mr Blair, against the advice of my spin doctors, the Labour leader at once assails me for the very, sins for which New Labour is usually attacked. 'I heard you stitched up the Spice Girls in your Spectator piece', he says, 'into saying they were Thatcherites,' and he goes on to accuse me of suppressing the Spice Girl Left, stifling political debate among Spice Girls and claiming that their policies were interchangeable with those of the Tories. 'They've been denying they were Tories ever since,' Mr Blair says. For the record, Mr Blair's negative campaigning against me is an outright lie, more grievous than Labour's pensions scare: the girls have simply restated that my original interview says they were 'a political coalition' with three Tories and two Labour. I, like every- one else, am weary of those dear Spice Girls. But alas, for Mr Blair I have no other raison d'etre: I exist purely as a purveyor of Spice. Certainly, voters are uninterested in the Spice Girls as an issue. Yet politicians keep raising it — especially Mr Blair, and for a sinister reason. This 'modern man of my generation' suggested that people should vote for him because he knows more Sixties pop-song lyrics than Mr Major. Actually such banal Sixties nostalgia qualifies him for a television pop-quiz panel rather than Downing Street. Then Mr Blair priggishly uses his knowledge of the names of the Spice Girls and other pop trivia to advocate his policy of 'modernisa- tion' for its own sake. Yet there is no morality in mere modernity. His sole argu- ment for devolution and reforming the Lords, for example, is 'modernisation': the constitutional equivalent of knocking down old houses to build hideous Sixties tower blocks. What the rise of Mr Blair and his contrived references to the Beatles and Spice Girls really herald is the return of the vandal curse of the Sixties.

Nonetheless, I liked shooting the breeze with Tango Bravo, as the Special Branch calls him. What's he like? I keep remembering Bismarck on Napoleon III: 'a sphinx without a riddle'. Yet he does not feel phoney or superficial in person. I have no doubt, he believes he believes. Despite his dislike of electioneering and lack of John Major's common touch, I divine Blair relishes repartee with members of his own class — his own spin doctors, even the odd journalist. Excitable, highly tuned, he is playful and fun to fence with. But he is also exceedingly nervous, vigilant, wily in a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed way: I admire foxes and wolves. When we were talking, Tango Bravo reminded me most of an alert, skittish vixen. I spot one glimpse of apprehension about power. 'Don't you feel sorry for John Major, beleaguered by his own party?' I ask. Tango shrugs, twinkling triumphantly. So I add, 'You should sympa- thise, Mr Blair, it could start happening to you next week!' No it won't,' he replies like quicksilver. But then a rare expression crosses his face — human frailty — as he remembers his barbaric backbenchers, his Cabinet of dinosaurian socialists. 'Or at least,' he muses, 'it won't happen to me in the same way or over the same issue.'

Let me prepare you for the possibility of Premier Blair by beginning The Specta- tor's own Blairite-Mandelsonian phrase- book for the years of power ahead. The first phrase to note is, of course, when Blair begins a sentence, 'Look . '. This means, `If you persist in asking this sensitive ques- tion, you are unlikely to be allowed within 50 feet of me ever again.' The second is, `You see . . . ', which means, 'You're an imbecile not to see . . . '. Lastly, the grand, ominous phrase, 'I think not' means 'You know not'.

Ilike Niall Ferguson's Virtual History, a collection by distinguished historians of `what ifs' like, 'Stalin's war or peace what if the Cold War had been avoided?'

. and all the King's men, couldn't put the Tory party together again.' But his 'what ifs' are far too sensible here is an utterly unlikely royal 'what if: I've just finished a novel, My Affair With Stalin, a black comedy in which a wicked 11-year-old decides he is the reincarnation of Stalin and re-enacts Stalin's career at his boarding-school. Until girls distract him and the game turns to tragedy, the children learn the rules of life from Stalin's bon mots; surprisingly, the old butcher pos- sessed a macabre wit. Here's one example I found. Sometime before the Queen mar- ried Prince Philip, Stalin and Molotov were meeting some Westerners, discussing British royals. 'Socialism is possible even under an English king,' said Stalin, adding, `How would it be, Comrade Molotov, if you or I married a princess? Maybe some good would come of it.' What if, to reheat the wartime alliance, Attlee had decided to enforce Stalin's joke? Imagine Dimbleby narrating the wedding of our beautiful future Queen to the squat old dictator with a withered arm in his generalissimo's uni- form: `So now the groom, Generalissimo Stalin, accompanied by his best man, Mar- shal Beria, follows the Earl Marshal the Duke of Norfolk, down the aisle towards the crypt . . . radiant, Princess Elizabeth awaits. The future Prince Consort bows as he passes a serene King-Emperor George VI and an unsmiling Earl Mountbatten of Burma . . . aha, now the Archbishop of Canterbury greets the . . . um, dashing groom. The ancient rites begin. . . . ' Would the wedding night have been any more gruesome than those suffered by the young brides of obese, suppurating Henry VIII? Anyway, I suspect the Queen is, to this day, unaware of her lucky escape.

The next Tory leader must be young enough to do the parliamentary version of Mick Jagger impersonations with Mr Blair. This excludes Heseltine and Howard. Michael Portillo, however, is exactly Blair's age; both, coincidentally, are convincing mimics. Having travelled with him recently, I sense Portillo has overcome his Achilles heel — reckless judgment. But he is of the dreadnought class of politicians who make strong leaders but, sometimes, disastrous candidates. He is rather funny, erudite, more human than he appears. When I recently wrote this Diary, I recounted Sir James Goldsmith's hurtful slight that I was once a member of a great family but am now wicked. The Defence Secretary, notic- ing my wistfulness, cheered me up. 'I think you're a credit to your family,' he teased. `The Spectator's headline should read, "Por- tillo backs Sebag against Goldsmith jibe"!'

Simon Sebag Montefiore writes for the Sunday Times.