So, if you thought you had heard the last of Tony Blair as a major political player, think again. In the past few weeks, speculation has been growing that the man who ran Britain for ten years after 1997, invaded Iraq and departed office in virtual disgrace, is on the comeback trail.
In Brussels, bureaucrats swap rumours about his eagerness to become president of the European Union. In the German press, Mr Blair has been waxing lyrical about his commitment to the EU.
And in interviews for British newspapers, he has pointedly remarked that he wishes that he had been offered the presidency when it came up in 2009.
Comeback king: Blair, seen here at The Olympic Stadium, has, all summer long, been orchestrating a comeback, arranging meetings and organising interviews in sympathetic newspapers
To most sane observers, of course, the most striking thing about all this is the former prime minister’s extraordinary lack of self-knowledge. Perhaps he simply cannot grasp how low his reputation has sunk since he became the first Labour leader to win three successive elections.
The alternative explanation is that he is well aware how far his stock has declined, but is determined to use the European presidency to rebuild his image.
After all, Mr Blair has always been obsessed by his place in the history books; not for nothing did he claim that he felt ‘the hand of history’ on his shoulder.
Given that his period in office included the shameful debacle of the Iraq war, the growth of a gigantic housing bubble and the worst excesses of the City financiers, you might think that Mr Blair would prefer to spend the next few years in quiet retirement.
But one well-informed observer, the former Foreign Secretary and SDP leader Lord Owen, believes that Tony Blair would find that impossible.
Obsessed: Blair has always been consumed by his place in the history books, saying once that he felt the 'hand of history' on his shoulder
In a new edition of his book The Hubris Syndrome, David Owen — who before entering politics was a specialist in neurology and psychiatry at St Thomas’ Hospital in London — argues that the architect of New Labour has fallen victim to a pathological obsession with his own political importance and moral righteousness.
As Lord Owen sees it, Mr Blair’s conduct after he won power in 1997 formed a ‘pattern of hubristic behaviour . . . which could legitimately be deemed to constitute a medically recognised syndrome’.
This ‘hubris syndrome’, as he calls it, is not the same as ordinary arrogance. Most politicians have an arrogant streak; even Lord Owen was never renowned for his modesty.
But pathologically hubristic politicians, according to Lord Owen, have ‘a narcissistic propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which they can exercise power and seek glory’. They have a ‘disproportionate concern with image and presentation’, and ‘a messianic manner of talking about what they are doing’.
They identify ‘themselves with the State to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical’. They have ‘excessive confidence in their own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others’.
Luck: Blair faced some very feeble Tory opponents in John Major, William Hague which facilitated his election wins
They believe that instead of being accountable to the court of ordinary public opinion, they are accountable only to ‘History or God’, and that ‘in that court they will be vindicated’. And to cap it all, they are so obsessed with their moral vision that they completely lose interest in the ‘nuts and bolts of policy’ — which inevitably means disaster.
Reading through Lord Owen’s list, the parallels with Tony Blair’s political career seem extraordinarily striking.
That he is fundamentally narcissistic, for example, is surely not in doubt.
As a young man, Mr Blair modelled himself on that supreme narcissist, the rock singer Mick Jagger.
At public school and Oxford, he preferred acting and singing to political activism.
As Lord Owen remarks, Mr Blair was probably drawn into politics because it ‘offered him a very large stage on which to perform’. Fundamental conviction had little to do with it.
The Hubris Syndrome: Former Foreign Secretary and SDP leader Lord Owen, believes Blair would find retirement impossible
Indeed, when Blair first stood for Parliament in 1982, he claimed to be on the Left of the Labour Party. He wrote that he had ‘come to socialism through Marxism’; he enthusiastically supported nuclear disarmament and even joined the CND.
In those days, the Left was in the ascendant. But when it fell from fashion, Blair’s principles underwent a miraculous transformation.
And when he became Labour leader in 1994, he deliberately downplayed political ideology, cleverly blurring the question of precisely what he stood for.
Under his leadership, Labour became besotted with image. Spin became the driving theme of his government, and it spoke volumes about Blair’s priorities that he relied so heavily on his bullying communications chief, Alastair Campbell.
The idea of Mr Campbell clambering out of the political grave to harangue the Brussels press corps on behalf of his EU president boss may seem far-fetched. But stranger things have happened.
Indeed, Tony Blair’s prime ministerial career was a peculiar phenomenon in itself.
He was certainly lucky to have some very feeble Tory opponents in John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. And he was astonishingly lucky that he inherited a booming economy — even though, as we have since painfully discovered, it was built on the quicksand of debt.
Rarely, however, can any prime minister have promised so much and delivered so little, from the failure to turn around Britain’s struggling state schools to his ineffective tinkering with the welfare system.With the admirable exception of peace in Northern Ireland, and the rather less admirable one of the catastrophe in Iraq, Tony Blair’s record was one of sensational non-achievement.
Yet his rhetoric was nothing if not messianic. As Lord Owen notes, it is the hallmark of a hubristic politician that he imagines himself to be walking with destiny, convinced that he alone has the answers to the nation’s problems.
Iraq's long shadow: Blair still faces a lot of opposition, and around Europe many people shudder to recall his self-appointed role as George W. Bush's lapdog
So, in his memoir A Journey, a cross between a footballer’s ghost-written autobiography and a Californian self-help book, Blair describes his political strategy as being ‘derived from destiny’.
Again and again, he pats himself on the back for his vision and courage.
‘Sometimes,’ he writes, ‘I marvelled at the way I did indeed step forward, but more often I was aware of the constant struggle to make the choice to do so.’
Even Bill Clinton, who also entertained a remarkably high opinion of himself, was shocked at Blair’s self-admiration. Seeing him suffused with messianic enthusiasm during the Nato intervention in Kosovo, Clinton told him to ‘pull himself together’.
One White House aide even suggested that Tony Blair was ‘sprinkling too much adrenaline on his cornflakes’.
But the success of the Kosovo adventure convinced the prime minister not just that he could do no wrong, but that he was a uniquely moral crusader, chosen by history to heal a suffering world.
‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken,’ he told his party conference after the terrorist attack on New York in September 2001. ‘Let us re-order this world around us.’ That was pure Blair: messianic, grandiose, breathtakingly arrogant in his conviction that history could be rewritten; yet at the same time promising everything and nothing
Alas, we know what happened next. The occupation in Iraq will be remembered as the most shameful, cynical and degrading episode in British foreign relations of recent times, not just because it turned out so badly, or even because Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction proved to be non-existent, but because it was an adventure built on trickery and lies.
By this stage, however, Blair no longer cared what the public thought. After meeting him shortly before the invasion, Lord Owen thought that he was showing ‘clear signs of hubris syndrome’, from the ‘messianic belief in his purpose’ to his ‘restless, hyperactive manner’.
We know now, of course, that by this stage Blair had developed a peculiar form of religious belief, a heady cocktail of Catholic orthodoxy, television evangelism and New Age therapy-speak.
When he was interviewed a little later on American television, he remarked that the judgment on Iraq would be ‘made by God’ as well as his peers.
Here is a classic symptom of the hubris syndrome: the fallen politician’s stubborn belief that the judgment of his contemporaries is fleeting and irrelevant, and that God (or history) will reward him.
No wonder, then, that he stubbornly resisted handing over the Number 10 keys to Gordon Brown, even though he had promised to do so. For as Tony Blair saw it, he was the only man for the job.
How could Britain possibly survive without him?
More than ever he reminds me of another supremely narcissistic politician, David Lloyd George, who was kicked out of Downing Street exactly 90 years ago, and spent the rest of his life trying to get back.
The Welsh Wizard, as he was known, became prime minister in 1916 and led Britain through World War I until his Liberal-Tory coalition broke up in 1922. But fundamentally, he was a self-centred careerist to whom no principle was sacred.
‘My supreme idea is to get on,’ Lloyd George told his wife. ‘To this idea, I shall sacrifice everything . . . even love itself under the wheels of my juggernaut if it obstructs the way.’ Like Blair, Lloyd George was an extraordinarily presidential prime minister. Like Blair, he was accused of flogging honours to boost his election coffers. And like Blair, he was addicted to adventures abroad, where he could show off his supposed courage, irrespective of the terrible costs to others.
Over ambitious: Even Bill Clinton, who also entertained a remarkably high opinion of himself, was shocked at Blair's self-admiration
But when, in 1922, Lloyd George tried to drag Britain into war with Turkey, his Tory partners decided they had had enough. Out into the wilderness he went — though he spent the next 20 years scheming to get back.
Like Lloyd George, Tony Blair cannot quite accept that the limelight has left him. And now he clearly believes that his moment has come.
All summer his modestly named firm, Tony Blair Associates, has been orchestrating a comeback, arranging meetings and organising interviews in sympathetic newspapers.
Even by politicians’ standards, his self-belief is simply staggering. ‘I’ve still got plenty of ideas and energy,’ he assured one interviewer.
He has, he explained, ‘learned a huge amount, especially about what is happening in Europe’.
Master of spin: Blair came to rely heavily on his bullying communications chief, Alastair Campbell
And here is the nub of the issue: Europe. At the end of his premiership, Blair was touted as the first president of the European Council. Instead, the job went to the obscure Belgian Herman van Rompuy, a man who appears to have been surgically cleansed of any personality or charisma.
Clearly Mr Blair regrets that Europe’s leaders were so short-sighted as to overlook him. ‘I sometimes wish now that when the presidency came up, I would have taken that position,’ he recently told one interviewer.
Little wonder, then, that in recent weeks Brussels has been alive with rumours that Blair wants the presidency, especially after he told the influential German paper Die Zeit that without radical reform, Europe faced a political crisis.
By implication, he was painting himself as the saviour of the continent. (Van Rompuy’s term of office expires in 2014.)
And as we know, Tony Blair likes nothing better than playing the messiah.
Whether he really can wangle another top job remains uncertain. Hubris inevitably involves a heavy dose of self-delusion, and Mr Blair may have underestimated the depth of opposition to him.
Around Europe, many people shudder to recall his self-appointed role as George W. Bush’s lapdog.
And here in Britain, even his old admirers in the Labour Party have long since seen through him.
Like any good American conman, though, he never gives up. There is always another sucker, always another buck to be made.
Last time it was Middle England that fell for his patter. These days, though, a mere country is not enough. For Tony Blair, now, only a continent will do.
The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair And The Intoxication Of Power by David Owen, Methuen, £9.99.
DTOM: So he feels the 'hand of history' on his shoulder; Blair should be more concerned about his date with the 'noose of destiny', for all he has done.