Sorry, Gordon, but your body politic doesn’t match Putin’s | Catherine Bennett

Before Tony Blair resigns himself to a future in commerce, his supporters should ask themselves if they have, truly, done everything possible to make him European president. Did Mr Brown, in his encomium, mention Mr Blair’s command of the tennis court? Did Mr Miliband remind waverers of Blair’s scrupulously maintained tan, balanced diet and faultless body mass index? Have his promoters produced, by way of clinching the question of physical superiority, photographs of Mr Blair in his underpants? By his own account, this costume shows the charismatic leader to traffic-stopping advantage.

In one of many allusions to Mr Blair’s appearance, the diaries of his fellow Adonis, Alastair Campbell, record a meeting on the day of the Queen Mother’s lying in state. Mr Blair – as often seemed to be his habit when the two men were together – was almost naked. “Yellow/green underpants and that was it. I said what a prat he looked. He said I was just jealous – how many prime ministers have got a body like this?”

Should not Blair’s current rivals for the EU presidency be able to say the same? Even member states that put the more prosaic duties of this job before its iconic requirements must surely recognise the need for a superlatively fit president whose hard body will command respect from every corner of Europe. How would it look, for example, if the new European figurehead were flabbier than jogger and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose spartan regime now boasts some of the thinnest ministers in the developed world?

In the UK, David Cameron is sufficiently confident in his shorts to tell fat people to show more self-control. As for Signor Berlusconi, what he lacks in core strength he has made up for in appearance: his artful deployment of hair transplants, make-up and cosmetic work now invites comparisons with one of Europe’s greatest-ever poseurs, Benito Mussolini. Unsurprisingly, the image-conscious Berlusconi has proved one of Blair’s most faithful supporters.

It seems fair to ask, in this era of political body consciousness, how well Blair’s so-called rival, Jean-Claude Juncker, would stand up to close scrutiny. Not necessarily in his underpants. A close-fitting swimsuit would do. Or even tight jeans, like the ones Mr Blair wore, to dazzling effect, at Camp David. Anything that indicated what kind of physical specimen presumes to challenge Mr Blair’s bodily authority. There are similar doubts, unresolved so long as they cling to their grey suits, about the comparative fitness for the presidency of Jan Peter Balkenende and Wolfgang Schüssel.

That there can be any hesitation about Blair’s qualifications suggests that European leaders need to be reminded of a key moment in the history of the EU. In Amsterdam for a summit, Mr Blair, urged on by Campbell, defeated all the other European leaders in a keenly contested bicycle race. “The others looked on incredibly jealous, including Kohl,” Campbell recorded. “Kohl didn’t go on the bike and looked incredibly pissed off.”

Some will think it demeaning for distinguished national leaders to be subjected to this kind of assessment. In what other non-sporting line of work are there similar expectations of physical prowess? No one expects a senior economist – Mervyn King, for instance – to jog, like Boris, or do judo, like William Hague, or, least of all, to boast about his feats, like Campbell. But retired politicians point out that it would now be unthinkable for a man with a build along the lines of, say, Aneurin Bevan, to find work at the top of politics.

Even for superior physical specimens, the price of political success is now perpetual exercise. In the defiant figure of Gordon Brown, still unashamed to be photographed with his proud bulge of a stomach, some see a backlash against the impossible “size zero” fixation that, models worry, is forcing the current generation of politicians to the edge of exercise addiction and burn-out. But most voters seem to view it differently: Brown is expected to lose the next election to a man whose principal political accessory is a bicycle.

Whether Blair haters like it or not, the new European president will have to compete on a world stage that is dominated by two obsessive exercisers, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, both of whom have also appeared half-naked in public. Of the two, President Putin was the first to revive a cult of the body that seems to have last flourished at this level around 2,000 years ago, when Augustus Caesar had the good luck to be sculpted in a breastplate rather than photographed in a sweat-soaked T-shirt.

True, President Clinton made some attempt to advertise his physical allure a few years back, with some jogging around Washington, but images of his puce-faced excursions only confirm Putin’s improbable mastery of the sporting-political scene. Photographs in which he fishes, practises judo and strikes a variety of absurd, he-man poses have inspired not ridicule, but newspaper features such as “Get a body like Putin’s” and, currently, the commission of a bronze bust by Russia’s Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation, a thoughtful gift for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Obama’s advertisement of his fitness is, as expected, a more subtle and appealing affair, in which any tendency towards macho excess is tempered by the presence of his partner in sport, Michelle. So far, in fact, there appear to have been more “Get arms like Michelle’s” features than “Get pecs like Obama’s”, and the first lady’s austere health and fitness routines had, until last week, come to eclipse the president’s achievements in basketball. Only the disclosure that Obama now spends more time playing golf than did George W Bush has awakened suspicions that there are more ways than one of being a macho, boring, women-excluding jock.

But given that unsporting men are also excluded from the presidential fun and games, these tedious displays of health and fitness may be more sportist than they are sexist. An ambitious toady of either sex might feign interest in the Olympics or in the fortunes of Burnley FC. And Condi Rice showed it could be done, with the help of a 4.30am gym routine. But what of the political but utterly unsporting of both sexes? Other than flicking with wet towels?

If blubber purges on the scale of Sarkozy’s are still something of a rarity, modern politics looks like an increasingly inhospitable place for the underexercised or sport-phobic. In an age of image-obsessed personality politics, ostentatiously exercised bodies will continue to be accepted at their owners’ estimation as charismatic indicators of control and strength. When they should, rather, be dismissed as irrelevant – when they are not evidence of terrifying narcissism and hours of wasted time. The last time Blair appeared in the Commons, his glorious sheen of well-toned health was widely and flatteringly contrasted with Brown’s neglected physique and pasty skin. But surely the most appealing thing about our prime minister is that no one has ever written an article called “Get a body like Gordon’s”.

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