So it’s 6pm, pitch black, on a cold February night and I’m sat on a wall at the back of St Anthony’s College in Oxford waiting for the prime minister to appear having given a speech on Britain’s future role in Europe.
I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not even supposed to know this event is taking place – despite the fact that the meeting – and what Tony Blair is going to say at it – has been plastered all over the newspapers and on the radio this morning.
Downing Street had told me I wasn’t allowed to know the time or venue. And I wasn’t allowed to attend. Oxford University had told me Downing Street has told it to refer all requests back to Number 10. I had found out anyway and called the college but was told there were no spaces.
To make matters worse, the prime minister had eluded my efforts to photograph him as he arrived by taking a back entrance that I believe I am now sat on the wall facing.
All I really wanted was proof that Tony Blair was actually in the building. Since what he was going to say in his speech had already been given to lobby journalists, who had already written it up, and since lobby journalists were the only representatives of the public allowed into the college, it seemed all too plausible that Tony Blair needn’t turn up at all.
And, ironically, the full force of the state appears to have concentrated on making it impossible to judge whether he actually was in the building not 20 feet away from me.
What is strange is that the only two entrances that he could have entered without me seeing – and photographing him – are not only quite small but two huge media vans are parked right next to it. It seems strange with such an over-the-top security operation that the prime minister’s security detail would allow cars to be parked so close – effectively hemming in anyone that came out of the exit.
Nevertheless, I test my camera and flash for the likely distance I will take the photograph. Which brings the immediate attention of two bobbies sat, with six others, trying to keep warm in a police van 10 foot away from me.
To my surprise, they are both very friendly and simply want to know what I’m doing. I say I’m a freelance journalist and I was hoping to get some snaps of Tony Blair leaving. “Okay, fine, so long as we know who you are,” they chirpily say and walked back to the warmth of their van.
I was expecting grief from the police and already had a series of reasons as to why I was doing nothing wrong, was not breaking the law, and what I would do if I was hassled or threatened unnecessarily. No need.
In fact, I had already started to ponder why this level of security and secrecy had been felt necessary. Has there ever been any evidence, or in fact anything, to point to Tony Blair personally being targeted? The IRA threat is over. Al-Queda’s entire modus operanda is striking symbols and causing maximum levels of death and carnage. It simply isn’t equipped to carry out assassinations and if the violent Islamic fundamentalist organisations are anything, it is pragmatic.
Nevertheless, there is something reassuring in the police coming over to talk to me and then, without any hassle, heading back when it is clear I am not a threat.
My flash gun has also attracted another visitor – an old woman from a nearby house who told me she was outside putting out food for the animals when she saw the police van and the flash and decided to wander over. She offered to make me a cup of tea for the cold and asked who was inside.
“Tony Blair,” I said, “giving a speech on Britain’s role in Europe.”
“Oooh, I don’t like him,” she said straight away. “That business in Iraq. And you know what him and Bush are saying now? That they were mis-advised at the time. Rubbish. He should never have sent our troops out there.”
While chatting away to this woman, two female college students appear, walking home. “Who’s in there?” asks one. “Tony Blair.” “Oh really? I don’t like him.” “No, I don’t like him, either,” says the other. “It was the war in Iraq,” says the old woman to grunts of agreement by the other two.
Then one of them comes up with a plan. “We should get some eggs – chuck them at him when he comes out. Is he coming out here?,” she asks, “I hope so,” I reply. “I’d love to hit him with an egg,” she muses.
It’s so cold that everyone soon departs and I decide to check out what is happening around the other side – the best entry point to the college. The fact that three policemen are on each exit attracts occasional attention with the odd passer-by asking the coppers who’s inside. They don’t tell them so inevitably a good number head over my way to ask me – the bloke with a huge camera hanging round his neck.
I had the exact same conversation every time. “So who is it in there?” “Tony Blair.” “Tony Blair, huh. What’s he doing?” “Giving a speech on Europe.” “Aw right. I don’t like him you know. Do you like him? He should never have gone to war in Iraq…”
Everyone, complete strangers, seemed willing – not even willing, actually keen – to discuss politics and in particular why the Iraq war was shameful. And it wasn’t just students. Men and women from 30 to 60. One bloke strolled over the road to discuss Blair’s legacy and have a laugh at the LibDems’ predicament.
The police refused to get drawn into political conversation and were slightly disappointed that I wasn’t from a national, merely a freelancer. Nonetheless, they were very affable and clearly would much rather be at home with their families than standing in the freezing cold at 7 o’clock at night.
It dragged on. The BBC left, a group of first-year students arrived with their mobile-phone cameras waiting for a chance to snap Tony, wandered off again when it got too cold and came back again 30 minutes later.
The event was over and people started leaving. Cars started leaving the exit where I was standing but they definitely weren’t the prime minister. And then through the gate, a whole series of police motorbikes lined up.
Once they started their engines, I was certain it was the prime ministerial escort and readied the camera as no less than six motorcycles rode past me followed by… nothing at all.
Subsequently, the Italian and Spanish ambassadors came out in their cars (whose number plates are “Italy” and “Spain” in case you’re wondering how to recognise them). But the police had already started packing up so clearly the PM had already left. If indeed he was ever here.
As I walked around the back to try to figure out what possible route the prime minister had taken – I noticed a car pulling out of a space well beyond the back gates. In the dark I hadn’t recognised a gate leading down to an underground entrance to St Anthony’s – where the prime minister’s car has clearly emerged from 10 minutes earlier to join the motorcade.
So, beaten by the intensive security put around our country’s leader, I retired to the pub to thaw out, go to the toilet (having needed to for an hour) and consider the evening.
And it was then that it struck me: the leader of this country is living entirely within a bubble of his own making.
Tony Blair has no reason to doubt that his life is under constant threat. He was whisked in a car to an underground car park to deliver a speech that had been made public but had had a ring of steel put around it. He addressed a group of the assembled and he was then whisked off again, with a full escort until he was safe back in Downing Street.
But if this man, who so entranced the nation only 10 years ago, had allowed himself to move outside this paranoia, he would have found not crazed terrorists waiting for him outside but rather a motley crue of students excited to see their leader, a lonely old woman, a man with a limp, and a freelance journalist with a camera.
He would have found that the Britain that he has lost track of is still there. Quiet indignation, good humour and a dislike for people that get above their station. That is the world that he should have been standing in, at least for a while. That would have given him something bigger and wider to consider as he winged it back down the M40 to London.
And it is Tony Blair the man that is behind his removal from the real world. It is security’s job to protest the prime minister – and it will do that whatever he decides to do. It is obviously enormously flattering to one’s ego to be sped in and out of meetings. It will certainly aid parallels of importance with respect to the American president. But the fact remains that not only is Britain a small island but its citizens are not allowed to carry handguns.
Tony Blair was in no danger in Oxford. At worst he might have had an egg flug his direction. And that might have been no bad thing for a man who the public has turned against because he has lost his touch. Tony Blair is no longer the man who is on people’s side; he is the man who fears for his own position, who believes himself risen above the mundanities of everyday life.
It is suddenly not so bizarre that the man who served so long as a Labour MP would welcome the ID cards Bill, pointing to how it would aid the security services. Who would happily push for phoney information on Iraq. Who wants new anti-terrorism powers that diminish every citizen of the UK. Who brings and pushes new laws that give unseen faces more and more power and control over everyday people’s lives.
This is all perfectly logical to a man who lives a suffocating life of constant protection, who is kept from unfamiliar faces and situations. The very news that he is appearing somewhere has become classified information for a Downing Street office that has soaked up this paranoia. In the brain of the man we call Tony Blair, the only solution is authority. Authority providing protection. Outside there is only danger and risk.
There is no coming back for this man. The country will choose a new representative who hasn’t become crippled by the years of fear of attack. Who believes in the essential goodness of this nation because he has felt it only days ago while walking down the street.
Is that man Gordon Brown? I suspect not. The current chancellor has become imbued with the same philosophy, drank from the same cup for too long. The man is David Cameron. Whether you like it or not, the country is turning to the man who isn’t scared of his own people.
In 2009, the Tories will be back for the first time in 12 years.