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The Tony fan club

Observations on Tony Blair and the Middle East

He still has that shimmery, starlike quality. When Tony Blair walked into Portcullis House in the House of Commons on 1 June, past the police and photographers on the pavement, a hush fell. The hall was packed, journalists, officials and researchers jostling for space, or a glimpse. “Here he comes,” said one excitedly as Blair strode down the corridor, flanked by security. He looked around with the ease of a man whose days in the fraught public eye are behind him. Even that stretched smile has softened.

Blair was giving evidence to the House foreign affairs committee’s inquiry on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. As the representative of the Middle East Quartet (the EU, Russia, UN and US), a role he has held for nearly two years, Blair was questioned by MPs for two hours. Are we any closer to resolving the crisis? What has he actually achieved? Doesn’t he work to targets? He grinned ruefully at the last question: no, there was no delivery unit breathing down his neck.

Blair was buoyant. Menzies Campbell MP gamely pointed out that there had been numerous plans and road maps to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – why should the Quartet’s be any different? Well, said Blair, reaching for that ready source of hope, there’s President Obama (he mentioned their many conversations). The combination of a new US administration, a more settled Israeli government and a greater will in the Arab world to find a solution was encouraging. June, he predicted, would be a “critical month”, with a plan emerging in the next few weeks. The MPs weren’t buying it. For Labour, Andrew Mackinlay gloomily pointed out that political paralysis was making progress virtually impossible.

Blair agreed. Even he had his moments of doubt. “I have a very optimistic nature, and I have to say occasionally that it’s severely challenged . . .” But then he recited a list of facts, threw in a joke, started sentences earnestly with “Look” or “Listen”, gesticulated his way round a point. The Labour MPs on the panel were soon smiling and nodding at his every word.

The Tories weren’t so soft. David Heathcoat-Amory asked the last question: “Isn’t it about time that you used your influence to insist that a precondition is at least an immediate halt to further [Israeli] settlement-building?” He’d got to the heart of the matter. Why else was Blair doing the job, if not to charm his way to peace?

Defensive, Blair adopted that familiar expression – half smile, half concern, a hint of baffled impatience. The settlement issue, he said, was as important as ever. But “it is one aspect of what is a whole matrix of issues”. The audience sighed. A “matrix of issues”: how we had missed this man’s political poetry.

At the end, the committee chair, Mike Gapes, thanked “Tony”, saying how good it was to see him back in the House. “Hear, hear,” came the cries. The Labour MPs fluttered around him, clapping him on the back (Ken Purchase) and squeezing his arm (Gisela Stuart). There was something of the returning hero about him as he wafted out of the door, free of the burden of expenses scandals and elections. In the Westminster gloom, Blair seemed a vision of success, the one that got away.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman