The Prime Minister seems to have been relying too much on the telephone over the past few months, and not enough on professionals who can look him in the face and tell him what he should do. It’s all got quite embarrassing, and never more so than in the last 10 days, when we’ve seen Tony score a hat-trick against himself every bit as spectacular as Wayne Rooney’s. In reverse order, no competent publicist (sorry, ‘spokesman’) would have left a convalescent Prime Minister alone in a room with a phone. Give a former ‘rising-star’ the chance to dust off his trusty old Filofax for the first time in years and naturally enough he’ll start making personal phone calls to newspaper editors. But an A-list Hollywood star would no more ring a gossip columnist or a film reviewer than he or she would fly Coach or risk being seen in Asda. It’s just not done. It didn’t work for Princess Diana either – it just stirred up the hornets’ nest and made her look like an arch schemer
What pushed Blair to get on the blower was damage limitation, following his instant and shattering demotion to lame duck.
.Once upon a time Alastair Campbell would have made those calls, and it’s a sign of Blair’s insecurity – his fallibility – that he had to do it himself.
The fallibility thing had become extra poignant on Friday, when Tony pitched up at hospital tie-less and exhausted rather than Tireless Executive. But for what? According to Downing Street: a ‘minor procedure’; according to everyone else: ‘a heart operation’. It was such a gift for Blair’s critics. I confess to laughing out aloud at the cod solemnity with which a frowning Gordon Brown assumed the air of Presbyterian elder taking a funeral, as he wished his colleague a speedy recovery and told us we should all be glad and thankful the ‘operation’ was a success.
Which brings us to the real purpose of last week’s trip to Brighton. In PR, when you’re out to win a piece of new business you start with a credentials presentation. Here you lay out your wares in the most enticing way possible, dangling them hypnotically in front of the prospective client so that, with any luck, all resistance becomes futile. Last week it was Labour’s chance to come looking for our custom, but it didn’t risk putting any faith in something as vague as ‘luck’. Crammed with photo opportunities portraying Tony, Cherie and their cabinet ministers as one big, joyous family, not a trick was missed. Tony showed Determination from the very start, picking off and disposing of the Big Issues in his speech before the hacks had even got the tops off their biros…Iraq, Trustworthiness, Brown, bang-bang-bang it went, like a series of boxer’s punches.
But then it helps to have a strong nerve when you’ve a selling job to do. The legendary American PR guru Ed Bernays was once hired to make cigarettes attractive to women so the mighty Reynolds Corporation could sell tobacco to a whole new market and double its profits. Off he sailed to Paris, where he discovered what colours the major couture houses would be promoting the following season, returning to advise the pouring of money into launching a brand of ciggies in those self same tones. It worked: American women took up smoking. That’s the sort of combination of attention-to-detail and downright immorality which gives PR a bad name.
God knows how much money was spent relaunching Tony Blair, but it ended up more like a message to shareholders than anything to do with conviction politics. It was a professional brand-repositioning exercise, with everything slick as a new car launch. The camera angles, the kissing, the soundbites, like the best advertising pitch money can buy, every possible presentational skill was brought to bear on the audience to market Blair’s warmth, trustworthiness and cute fallibility.
And all for what? I’ll give you a clue. Quack-OW!-Quack-OW! Harold Wilson was right, but if a week is a long time in politics, 10 days is an eternity.