Most of us have experienced the discomfort of watching a friend go off the rails. At first his oddities are dismissed as eccentricities. An absurd assertion, a lunatic conviction, a sudden enthusiasm or unreasonable fear, are explained as perhaps due to tiredness, or stress, or natural volatility. We do not want to face the truth that our friend has cracked up. Finally we can deny it no longer — and then it seems so obvious: the explanation, in retrospect, of so much we struggled to reconcile.
Sometimes the realisation comes fast and suddenly. It did for me at university when my Arab fellow student Ahmed, who for months had been warning me of the conspiracies of which he suspected we might be victims, pulled me into his room to show me the death-ray he could see shining through his window. It was somebody’s porch-light. Likewise, the madness of King George III, which came in spells, was undeniable when it came. At other times the realisation is a slow, sad dawning of the obvious. Sometimes it is a friend about whom we worry. Sometimes it is a prime minister.
I will accept the charge of discourtesy, but not of flippancy, when I ask whether Tony Blair may now have become, in a serious sense of that word, unhinged.
Genius and madness are often allied, and nowhere is this truer than in political leadership. Great leaders need self-belief in unnatural measure. Simple fraudsters are rumbled early, but great leaders share with great confidence tricksters a capacity to be more than persuaded, but inhabited, by their cause. Almost inevitably, an inspirational leader spends important parts of his life certain of the uncertain, convinced of the undemonstrable.