Backlit by milky sunshine, sitting at an awkward angle, Lord Tebbit looks brittle and frail. This is not what you expect. The former Conservative Party chairman, who will be 70 next month, has been called many things: Michael Foot dubbed him ‘a semi house-trained polecat’; Margaret Thatcher considered him her ‘lightning conductor’; the Tory mayoral candidate Steve Norris dismissed him as ‘a racist and a homophobe’. But frail? Perhaps it’s to do with his hair. Usually, he manages to look bald and serious at the same time. Now though, his remaining strands at the back are almost collar-length – stiff, vertical, ghosting in the light. It is mid-morning. We are drinking coffee in the library of a Pall Mall club, and Norman Tebbit is wearing his Eurosceptic convictions on the lapel of his tweed jacket – a gold pound sign. Somehow, his clothes – Tattersall shirt, no-nonsense brown trousers and sturdy brown shoes – don’t suit his look, which is that of a grey-skinned Pilgrim Father. But they do give an indication of what he will be doing in a few hours’ time: shooting in Norfolk.
‘I was sitting in the car this morning grumbling gently to my driver about how full my diary is this week,’ Tebbit says in a thin monotone. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Indeed, I should be pleased as I approach my 70th birthday that I’m still able to earn a living [as a media pundit and businessman]. I can’t remember how many times I’ve retired, or been retired, now. I am reminded of my age, though, when I’m not feeling well. I had a rather tatty start to last year…’ By ‘tatty’ he means he came down with flu, which developed into pneumonia, which lead to a heart condition bad enough to see him hospitalised. ‘It’s as much as I can do to lift a bag of cartridges at the moment, and I’m limping a bit because I tweaked rather heftily an old scar from Brighton…’ He refers, of course, to the IRA bomb which in the early hours of 12 October 1984 ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton, scene of the Tory party conference. He and his wife Margaret, a former nurse, fell four storeys into the debris. They held hands as they waited to be rescued, bleeding and buried alive, convinced they were going to die. Eventually the television cameras recorded Norman Tebbit emerging from the rubble as in a dusty pietˆ, his feet bare. The damage to Margaret’s spine left her paralysed from her neck down. She has a full-time carer, but her husband still gets up twice in the night to turn her over, so that she doesn’t get bed sores. ‘The limp reminds me I’m mortal,’ Tebbit says with a gaunt smile. ‘My younger son the other day was suggesting we should buy a shoot between us. “It’s a long term project,” he said. And I said, “Have you thought, I might not be too interested in the long term?”‘
It’s safe to assume that Norman Tebbit never suggested buying a shoot with his own father, Leonard, a sometime jeweller and pawnbroker from Ponders End, Middlesex. As we all know, when times were hard Len ‘got on his bike’ to look for work – and found it, among other places, in an abattoir, a pub and on a factory floor. But he preferred playing snooker to working, and Norman, who joined the Young Conservatives at the age of 15, resented his father’s lack of ambition.
Given what he once described as his narrow, dull and impoverished background, did the young Norman ever imagine a day would come when he would be a peer of the realm, heading up to Norfolk for a day’s shooting? A flicker of a grin again. ‘Not really. But someone asked me recently – silly question – “If you had become Prime Minister, what would have been the most important difference between you and your predecessor in the Tory party?” And I said, “I would have been the first Tory prime minister to have been photographed on a grouse moor since Alec Douglas-Home.”‘ He gives a wheezy laugh, so faint it is almost a snuffle.
It’s not such a silly question. Norman Tebbit won Epping, his first parliamentary seat, in 1970. He then held Chingford from 1974 to 1992. He was Secretary of State for Employment and, later, Trade and Industry and, by 1984, was considered the heir apparent to Margaret Thatcher. But after the Brighton bomb he seemed to lose his momentum; though he went on to become Tory party chairman and was generally credited with organising the Tory victory in the 1987 general election, Mrs Thatcher lost confidence in him and, as was her way, let it be known. When she was toppled in 1990, many senior Conservatives on the right of the party tried to persuade Tebbit to stand against John Major. Privately, he still broods on his regret that he didn’t.
‘I chose not to contest it. Perhaps that was a mistake, because either I would have been successful or I would have lost the ’92 election and been replaced – and a Labour government led by Kinnock would not have lasted long; we certainly wouldn’t be talking about a second Labour term. Tony Blair owes me a lot.’ The tight smile. ‘Without me – the way I reformed the trade unions so that he was able to be elected as leader of the Labour Party – without me, he wouldn’t be in Number Ten today. He’s never thanked me. But politics is an ungrateful business.’
It certainly is. The self-appointed guardian of the Thatcherite legacy has recently been waging war against his own party, or at least those members of it who favour a more progressive approach to social issues. In particular, it seems Tebbit has made it his mission to nobble Michael Portillo. In recent months he has attacked the shadow chancellor’s ‘touchy-feely pink pound policies’. ‘I could never quite make him out,’ he said recently. ‘Remember his great SAS speech? “Who Dares Wins”. It made my toes curl it was so singularly inappropriate.’
Not a fan then. So is he worried that, if the Tories lose the next election, Michael Portillo will challenge William Hague for the leadership?  ‘I don’t think there is any chance of the Tory party electing Portillo, because I think he has undergone some sort of emotional trauma which has left him less effective than he was. It has lost him a great deal of support in the Conservative Party.’
Given what we know of Lord Tebbit’s attitude toward gays, or ‘raving queers’ as he is wont to call them, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that his views on Portillo might have been coloured by ‘that admission’.  What is it with Tebbit and homosexuals? Why does he hate them so? ‘I wouldn’t actively seek out someone as a companion on the basis that I was looking for a homosexual,’ he replies, rather bafflingly. ‘But one of the most able organisers in my time at Central Office was homosexual, and I entrusted him with a lot of work because he was very good at it. We got on extremely well together. He was an officer in the TA, and I had no hesitation in accepting an invitation from him to go to the regimental dinner as his guest. On the other hand, he would never have been seen on a Gay Pride march.’
After leaving school at 16, Norman Tebbit worked as a journalist on the Financial Times for a couple of years before National Service in the RAF. Being tidy minded, he says, he loved the ritualistic precision folding of blankets and laying out of kit. Was he also seduced by the camp humour of the Ents Corps? He can see where this is going. ‘I don’t think we had any gays on our squadron. We had an irreverent sense of humour about everything, pranks and so on. It was characteristic of people in that occupation.’
One of the arguments for lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 is that there is evidence of a homosexual gene. Where does Norman Tebbit stand on this nature-nuture debate? ‘There is a great deal of shading, not a clear line down the middle. But I object to the exposure of vulnerable youngsters to predatory older people. We all know there is bit of homosexual experience that goes on between boys in adolescence. Not unusual.’
Did he ever go through a homosexual phase? ‘No.’ Not even a brief flirtation? ‘No, I had the good fortune to go to a mixed grammar school, and I discovered there that there was something called “girls”. We were not adventurous by today’s standards, but we were aware of girls and were taught the facts of life in a mixed biology class. Thoroughly healthy, in my view.’
Would he accept that two gay men can be in love with one another? ‘Oh yes. Of course. We’ve all known some, haven’t we? There can be deep bonds of affection between heterosexuals of the same sex, too. I wouldn’t want to prosecute it or put up a barrier against it. It has always happened and it always will happen, but it is a deviation from the norm and shouldn’t be treated as if it were the norm.’
Lord Tebbit swears by the principles of economic liberalism; can he not see that social liberalism is a logical extension of this? ‘To argue that it is right to say that you should have an open market in potatoes and an open market in sex is to not know the difference between a sack of potatoes and the sexual act.’ That’s more like it – the sort of comeback you expect from a polecat. Tebbit believes that the silent majority in this country still thinks as he thinks, and that the much-discussed ‘new mood’ of tolerance, inclusiveness and emotionalism is just a myth.
He seems such a cold-blooded man: I find myself wondering whether this is partly a defence mechanism against the isolation and repression he felt as a child, and the traumas he experienced as an adult. When the Second World War started, he and his elder brother Arthur were evacuated briefly to Wales. ‘I cannot remember saying goodbye to my parents – I suppose we must have done but we were an unemotional family and I doubt if there were tears.’ He didn’t have an easy relationship with his parents, he says, his father especially, and he escaped from their ‘drab and grey world’ by voraciously reading PG Wodehouse and HG Wells.
Did he grow up too quickly? ‘I was a serious child but then I suppose it was a serious time to be growing up. I was taught to be in control of my emotions. You didn’t make a fuss. My father was in the trenches. He didn’t talk about it, didn’t make a fuss, and I never asked him about it. I wasn’t close to him. I suppose it affected the way I brought my children up. I was much closer to them than my father was to me. Because of my life as an airline pilot [for BOAC from 1953-1970] I was either not there or completely there. And so I was much more involved with them.’
The Tebbits married in 1956, and had three children. ‘After the birth of our younger son, William, my wife became desperately ill and for some months, it felt like years, I was his mother. No experience is wholly bad as long as you survive. It led me to a greater sympathy with women who batter babies. I can understand why a woman after childbirth, an emotional time, faced with several children could pick up the baby and, not meaning to hurt it, shake it and say, “Go to sleep, you little bugger, go to sleep!” I can understand that.’ Margaret Tebbit was suffering from a depressive illness, referred to glancingly but touchingly in Norman Tebbit’s autobiography Upwardly Mobile (1988): ‘She was acutely ill, and a potential danger both to herself and the baby. Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.’ Her depression recurred periodically until the Seventies.
Having been brought up to be self-contained and unemotional, it must have been difficult for Tebbit to cope with the erratic mood swings of his wife. ‘I think, I know, there are occasions where one is driven to tears. But that doesn’t make the case for being loose in one’s emotional control. Not that I am always good at controlling my emotions. I do get terribly angry at times. Never over big issues. Usually when I know in my heart that it is me to blame for the cock up. On the other hand, when disasters happen, I take it rather calmly. Everyone gets frightened, but the difference between fear and panic is loss of control.’
He gives me an example. He trained as a jet pilot with the RAF and lived for the ‘sheer animal thrill’ of flying at high speed. One day during take-off in a Meteor something went wrong and he found himself trapped in his cockpit, his oxygen mask full of blood, and the plane, which was full of fuel, on fire. He assumed he was going to die but, instead of panicking he considered his options, and eventually found a way to break the glass and scramble free before passing out. ‘It made me stronger in a way. I’m no longer afraid of dying. We are all going to die sooner or later and these things just give you balance and judgement in how you use the extra time you’re given. When you have cheated death twice, you can’t bear to waste time. Just because you are in control of your emotions doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate, he adds. He says he used to find speaking at party conferences addictive because of the adrenaline rush. Certainly, he always seemed to take pleasure from his sarcastic performances in the House of Commons. He appeared to have more than his share of that negative emotion, hate. He disagrees. ‘I don’t think you need hate to have a killer instinct in the electoral process. Tony Blair seems to hate Conservatives. It comes through strongly in his comments about the “forces of conservatism” – in which he bundled me in with the IRA, something which I found distasteful, to put it mildly. I think that hate will cost him dear in the end. You need passion but not hate, because that is indeed a negative emotion, one that springs from fear.’
During the War, Tebbit’s house was damaged by a V1 rocket. When the Germans started using V2s the young Norman became fatalistic, because he could not hear them coming. I ask whether his subsequent brushes with death made him question his fatalism: should he take more responsibility for the choices he made? Had he not given up his life as an airline pilot to become a politician, for instance, his wife wouldn’t have been disabled. ‘And if my aunt had got wheels she would be a tea trolley, but she ain’t and she isn’t,’ he says. ‘What would my life have been like if I hadn’t gone into politics? Well I might have been killed in an airline accident. I might have encountered a long lost aunt in Australia who left me a fortune. It is never a worthwhile use of mental energy to play that game. I did what I did and what happened happened.’
He may not be introspective but does he brood upon his political legacy? Had he retired from public life after standing down as an MP in the ’92 election, he would have been remembered as a formidable performer at the despatch box, as the man who took on the mighty trade unions and won, as a diehard Eurosceptic and as the brilliant tactician who masterminded one of the most successful Tory election campaigns ever fought. Yet now the things most people associate him with are his intolerance towards gays and, because of his ‘cricket team test’ – which held that members of an ethnic minority could not be considered English unless they supported the English cricket team – his controversial views on race relations. Even his own party has turned on him over these issues: in 1997 William Hague said that if Tebbit didn’t want to be part of the team he should ‘get off the field’.
‘Making myself unpopular has never worried me,’ he says, crooking his hands stiffly in his lap. ‘Chasing popularity is like chasing happiness, a self-defeating process. It always eludes you. So I’ve always said what I believed, and thought, to hell with the consequences. I don’t think the country will be a better place if it becomes illegal for a 16-year-old girl to go out with two dogs rabbiting, but legal for her to be buggered by a dirty man old enough to be a member of the Cabinet. And I don’t think many people, if put into a room where they were told what they said would never be repeated outside, would claim that the United Kingdom is easier to govern or is a better place following the enormously large-scale immigration we have had in recent years. I find it very curious now that I am the one who is campaigning for those of immigrant stock to be encouraged to integrate into the mainstream and that it is the race relations industry which is supporting a policy of apartheid. Multiculturalism is a soft word for cultural apartheid. It causes more damage than ethnic unity. Man is a social animal but he is also a pack animal, and a pack has to have common rules and a hierarchy and territory. The pack can’t function effectively with two sets of rules, one set for dark coloured dogs and one set for light coloured. It just won’t work. Muslim countries, not least the Saudi Arabians, always respect me because I have stood up for their rights to run their country their way.’
He is in his stride now, though his neutral tone of voice has not changed: he found Greg Dyke’s comment about the BBC being ‘hideously white’ infuriating. ‘I can only think that if I had observed of members of the Equal Opportunities Commission that it was “hideously black” that it would have caused rather more furore on the Left. It is utterly stupid to call for quotas. If you start playing this quota game for the BBC, or the Army, or the police, it becomes absurd. People should be treated on their merit. Are we going to have a quota for Jewish goalkeepers? If we had quotas for the Cabinet, there should only be two Scotsmen at the most, and half a homosexual.’
Dogs? Packs? Jewish goalkeepers? These don’t seem like sophisticated arguments, but I suppose Tebbit has always prided himself on being unsophisticated, the norm, the common man. He is a hard man to get the measure of because, though he is tactless and completely lacking in public warmth and self doubt, he is also principled, lucid and fearless, unusual qualities for a politician in a democracy. Remorseless and homophobic he may be, but he is incredibly kind and thoughtful to his wife – and these internal and external characteristics don’t quite gel. Theirs is an unusual and deep relationship, with sacrifices on both sides. He pushes her wheelchair, reads to her and helps cut up her food when they go out to dinner. The only chore he hated doing was putting on her lipstick for her, but now she has some use of her hands she is able to do it herself. She, in turn, is philosophical about her injuries – ‘I refuse to keep a diary, refuse to look back,’ she has said. Though he resigned from the Cabinet in 1987, Tebbit was later tempted to return when Margaret Thatcher offered him the education portfolio. ‘But I’d promised my wife that I would quit the front bench. I would have had little time for her and she would have been lonely.’
He checks his watch. ‘Now I really must be getting on my way to Norfolk,’ he says tonelessly. I accompany him across the creaky floor of the library and, slowly, down the stairs to the coat rack where he collects his shooting jacket. His chauffeur will be doing the driving. Does Lord Tebbit still have police protection as well as a driver?  ‘No,’ he says with a wintry smile. ‘I’m not important enough to shoot any more.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.