Much will be made of how Tony Blair "still has the old magic", and it is true: he does. Adorned with a deep, Middle-Eastern tan, a little slimmer and -- at times -- almost sounding a touch American, Blair has lost none of his communication and, yes, performance skills. Predictably, he had the room of Labour activists laughing in the north east area around his former constituency of Sedgefield, which Blair called his "political spiritual home", with the routine self-depreciating gags about how forbidding it could be for Tory candidates (encouraged by locals to address the working men's clubs during the Bingo), and, at first, for Blair himself. Much, too, will be debated over whether Blair remains an "asset" for his party, given, especially, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But set against the Labour slogan of "A Future Fair for All" and unusually wearing a red tie, Blair had the local party in thrall to his every word.
And it is the substance of those words, not the style in which they were delivered, that deserves real attention before what Blair said was a "momentous" forthcoming decision for the electorate. First, this self-proclaimed "optimist" outlined the context in which this election draws near. He said that the power elites back in September 2007 privately believed that the world economy was "doomed" to a return to the 1930s, and contrasted that to the promise of growth and recovery marked by this month's Budget. This "path" was mapped out "not by chance; but by choice", he said. And, ushering in his first round of applause of the speech, Blair said the words Downing Street has collectively been waiting to hear: "The decision to act required leadership. And Gordon Brown supplied it." Blair paid tribute to Alistair Darling too, and his old friend Peter Mandelson. "In uncertain times," said Blair, "there's a lot to be said for certain leadership".
Yet the most powerful passage came when Blair turned his full fire on the Tories, for the first time since he left Downing Street in the summer of '07. He said the question was who "gets" the future direction Britain must take, and revealed his view that "time for a change" is the most "vacuous" of political slogans. For the Tories have not changed, Blair argued with skill. Crucially, Blair compared the current Tory position with that of New Labour prior to the 1997 election. Labour had changed its party constitution, compromised with the electorate; and even when Labour was twenty points ahead, he pointed out, the party leadership did not flinch from its new "philosophical" position which was "woven" right across its policy agenda. The implication was that David Cameron was in turn "buffeted by events" -- as on fiscal policy -- or reverting to his core vote.
Notably, Blair didn't mention Cameron by name, but tore into his policies, especially on Europe. The decision to leave centre-right politics in the Euro was a "sop" to the party, which -- as well as giving up good will among mainstream European leaders who would be forced to work with Cameron -- did not bode well for how policy is being made. Blair said that the party had "gone right" on Europe "when it should have gone centre", and added powerfully that no party in modern politics had won an election on an anti-European platform. No doubt to the dismay of some, he went on to claim that the Tories had "gone liberal" on crime when they should have "stuck" to a traditional Tory approach. That will play better in the country at large than among liberals, and represented a flash of why some accuse Blair of being "right-wing".
But today, there was no doubt who Blair wanted to win next time. The polls, he said, were narrowing because the question as to what "change" would mean has grown starker. That question "faded" while New Labour was in opposition, he said, but under Cameron it has gone into "bold". In one of his most effective passages, Blair said that the Tories had one agenda -- what they believe in -- and another -- "what they think that have to say to win". That is not "confusion", he added: "It is a strategy", and one that must be exposed between now and polling day.
Cynics, including this one, have occasionally wondered whether Tony Blair truly loves the Labour party. The son of a Tory who so often defined his politics by being anti-Labour in the traditional sense, some even wondered whether he secretly hoped Cameron would win. This would be flattering in the crudest sense, because it would mean that no-one could beat the Tories like him. It would have been "revenge" for Brown and his circle which tormented him through much of his premiership. And, just perhaps, it would be some kind of "continuation" of Blairism. Meanwhile, the failed rebellions encouraged by so-called "Blairites" -- including, say, Stephen Byers -- indicated to some that Blair privately wanted Brown out.
But no. Not now, at least. Blair has set out where he stands -- on the prospect of a fourth term and on the Tories under Cameron. At last and -- to some - at the eleventh hour, Tony Blair truly is a Labour man.
Really, however much you hate the man, you've got to admit he's one hell of an orator.