When, at the last Labour Party conference, Bill Clinton was rehearsing the cod delegate's opening that Alastair Campbell had written for his speech - "Clinton, Arkansas CLP" - he turned in understandable puzzlement to Campbell and asked: "Are you sure they're going to laugh at this?" Well, it sounded better than it reads. So they did, heartily. And from then on, despite making a speech that was stronger on style and delivery than substance, he could not put a foot wrong. The conference loved it.
That's worth remembering in any attempt to analyse a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) yesterday, which remained seriously divided despite what even serial rebel MPs such as Bob Marshall-Andrews acknowledged was a "bravura" performance by the Prime Minister in defence of his line in Iraq. (Mr Marshall- Andrews's point was that, given the eloquence and unvarnished, rather un-New Labour passion with which Mr Blair made his case, the fact that - in his estimate - about half the PLP remained opposed showed how serious Mr Blair's problem was. But we'll return to that.)
The warmth of the Clinton reception in Blackpool shows that the party has not, largely, reverted to the anti-Americanism that disfigured much of it in the 1980s. The idea, for example, that Robin Cook, a prominent cabinet doubter, is any longer anti- American, is absurd. If he had been, he would not have enjoyed, as Foreign Secretary, such a close relationship with Madeleine Albright. The party has moved a long way since even the 1990s, when a frequent complaint within the party about New Labour's style was that it reflected the "Clintonisation" of British politics. In probable contrast to the Tory leadership, almost the entire PLP wants to see Hans Blix and not the US administration decide whether the Iraqis are in material breach of UN resolution 1441. It is not any longer the US per se that so much of the Labour Party distrusts. It's George Bush and, even more so, some of those around him, like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
This simple distinction matters, because that distrust reflects a much wider slice of public opinion, including the non-political establishment, than the traditional anti-Americanism of the Labour left ever did. When Mr Blair addressed the UK ambassadors last week, the diplomats' revolt predicted in some quarters didn't happen, and his speech was pretty well received, partly because he chose to remind the Americans that they had to "listen back". But Robin Christopher, the Ambassador to Argentina, struck a chord with many of his colleagues when he asked Jack Straw to say what, if any, were the limits to UK support of the US.
So while there may have been a trace of the old atavism in Dennis Skinner's pointed advice in the Commons to Mr Blair on what he should tell the US President on his trip to Washington at the end of this month, there was nothing very maverick about his claim that Mr Bush was after Iraqi oil and the completion of the job that his father had left unfinished in 1991.
Well beyond the ranks of the hard left and those such as the consistent and honourable anti-war MP Tam Dalyell, there are many mainstream Labour MPs who share just those suspicions. Just as there are many who would love to see Saddam deposed but who have genuine worries, right or wrong, that an invasion of Iraq will make progress in the Middle East peace process more rather than less difficult, particularly if the US continues to show significantly less interest in influencing it than the British Prime Minister. …