Preacher on a Tank
Tony Blair emerges from these memoirs as a man of extraordinary intellectual self-confidence. He likes to think for himself, and decide for himself, whatever the issue. He takes this to be one of the key attributes of leadership, and it is why he believes he was cut out for it while other people (you can guess who) were not. But he also puts it down to his training as a barrister at the hands of Derry Irvine, someone he describes as having ‘a brain the size of a melon’. From Irvine Blair learned the importance of what he calls ‘drilling down’ when faced with a seemingly intractable problem. What this means is being willing to go back to first principles, ‘behind and beneath the conventional’ analysis, and if necessary to look at the problem from a completely new angle. Time and again, when faced with a political difficulty, Blair takes himself away from his advisers and cabinet colleagues in order to sit and think on his own. But he does not limit himself to contemporary politics. He also likes to dig down into the past, looking for the solutions that escaped some of his predecessors. The most arresting example of this comes when Blair finds himself at Chequers one day (he doesn’t give a date), ‘meandering through the bookcases’, and pulls down a volume of Neville Chamberlain’s diaries, which includes an account of his meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden prior to the Munich conference in 1938. Blair is struck by how unfairly history has treated Chamberlain. ‘We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler’s charm. He wasn’t. He was entirely alive to his badness.’ Chamberlain knew, according to Blair, that he was dealing with a madman. So why did he try to appease him? How could he get it so right, but get it so wrong?
Blair’s answer is that Chamberlain did not ask himself the right question. ‘Chamberlain was a good man, driven by good motives. So what was the error? The mistake was in not recognising the fundamental question. And here is the difficulty of leadership: first you have to be able to identify that fundamental question.’ Chamberlain thought that the question was: can Hitler be contained? In many ways, Blair concedes, this was the obvious thing to ask.
Chamberlain should have been right. Hitler had annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. He was supreme in Germany. Why not be satisfied? How crazy to step over the line and make war inevitable.
But that wasn’t the fundamental question. The fundamental question was: does Fascism represent a force that is so strong and rooted that it has to be uprooted and destroyed? Put like that, the confrontation was indeed inevitable. The only consequential question was when and how.
Chamberlain’s problem was that he didn’t drill deep enough.
A Journey is a chaotically organised book, in which topics are raised in the most surprising places. This discussion of appeasement does not come, as you might expect, in the more than one hundred pages devoted to Iraq, but in a section on public service reform and the Labour Party’s reluctance to press ahead with it during Blair’s first term at the pace he would like. It provokes Blair to wonder if he has been asking the right question. ‘Maybe the real problem wasn’t the party’s failure to embrace modernisation … Maybe it was that the country didn’t really buy it. What if instead of taking on the party, I had to take on the public, my allies, the strong trunk holding up my branch?’ It is hard to know what to make of this, since Blair does not tell us either how he answered the question (only that it made him ‘uneasy’), or how the Hitler analogy could possibly help. But it is also hard to avoid the thought that Blair is himself shirking the real question. He faced two serious and determined enemies during his time in Downing Street: al-Qaida and Gordon Brown. One, he concluded, represented a force so strong and rooted that it had to be uprooted and destroyed, since confrontation was inevitable; the only question was when and how. The other had to be contained, because stepping over the line would have been crazy and made war inevitable. But why on earth did he think that al-Qaida was an example of the first, and Gordon Brown of the second, rather than the other way round?
Blair did not have to appease Gordon Brown. He could have sacked him, particularly once he had accepted (early on in his second term) that Brown was determined to obstruct him and ultimately to drive him out of Downing Street. Why didn’t he? Blair asks himself this question more than once, and each time he is driven to the same conclusion: that having Brown ‘inside and constrained was better than outside and let loose, or, worse, becoming the figurehead of a far more damaging force well to the left.’ Blair takes these reflections to be more evidence of his ability to see things other people miss, and whenever some of his closest advisers try to persuade him he is wrong, and that his relationship with Brown is actually crippling the government, he reminds them that ‘these judgments are the reason why I am leader and you are not!’ Yet it is striking how timid and conventional Blair’s analysis really is. He implies that Brown had the capacity to wreck his premiership if he was reduced to scowling on the backbenches, but he does not take us through the scenarios in which this might have happened. Blair was – until Iraq – a prime minister in a position of almost unparalleled strength: massive majorities, quiescent opposition, remarkably steady economic growth. It is true that Brown claimed the credit for the last, but the easiest way to test that would have been to remove him and see if the economy kept growing. Sacking Brown or moving him to the Foreign Office (with the strong possibility that Brown would resign in protest) would have been messy, unpleasant and unpredictable. It might have led to open warfare. But Blair does not explain to us why he believed it was a war he could not win. He insists he was not intellectually intimidated by Brown – Gordon might have had ‘the better degree’, but Tony considered himself far superior in political imagination and creativity. Blair would have us believe that he was a smarter politician, a deeper thinker and a better man than his rival. Yet still he did not dare touch him. Why?
The answer is that digging down was Blair’s weakness, not his strength. He was always on the lookout for the key that would unlock a political problem, and make all the pieces fit together. But there was no such key to the Brown problem, and no neat solution. There were only more or less unpalatable alternatives, each of them ugly and messy, with plenty of loose ends. What was required was the ruthless political calculation at which Brown excels, and that Blair seems to find too shallow. Instead, he preferred to toy with paper solutions so wishful that even Neville Chamberlain might have blushed. We learn this not from Blair’s memoirs, but from Peter Mandelson’s, which provide a much more complete account of the Blair/Brown relationship (they are also much easier to read, since Mandelson has no problem telling his story in chronological order).[*] Mandelson reveals that Blair frequently pledged to ‘do something’ about Gordon, only to shy away when the moment came to act. Finally, in the summer of 2003, he commissioned Mandelson to draw up a plan to neutralise Brown’s malign influence by splitting the Treasury in two: on the one hand, a reduced Ministry of Finance, restricted to matters of macroeconomics with Brown still in charge; then a separate Office of Budget and Delivery, which would be placed in the Cabinet Office and subject to control from Number Ten, and would deal with all government funding and spending. They christened this plan Operation Teddy Bear. As you read about it, you immediately think: there is no way Gordon is going to agree to this. Then you think: they must know that, so the plan must include a strategy for dealing with Brown’s refusal to accept it. But Blair has no such strategy. After months of dithering, he takes the plan to Brown, who responds with a flat no. At which point Blair decides it would be too dangerous to proceed, and shelves it.
Instead, he agrees to a catastrophic deal, brokered by John Prescott, which commits him to handing over to Brown before the end of his second term, on the condition that Brown gives him his full support in the interim. As even Blair acknowledges, this was a terrible mistake. The agreement made no sense, because its terms were entirely unequal – it was asymmetric warfare. Whether Blair kept his side of the bargain was an unarguable matter of fact, whereas Brown’s honouring his commitment was always going to be a matter of opinion. When Blair reneges a year later, and pledges to stand again in 2005 for a full third term, Brown of course feels betrayed, insisting he has offered the government his full support and Tony has simply shafted him. He becomes more or less unmanageable from this point on, until he finally succeeds in driving Blair from office in 2007. In the end, then, Brown could not be contained.
Blair draws no connection between his handling of Brown and his approach to the war on terror. But Mandelson does. He says that Blair first began to despair of his relationship with Brown as early as the summer of 2001, shortly after Labour had been re-elected to a second term with another huge majority. This should have been the moment for Blair to press ahead with New Labour reforms of the public services, but he is worried that Brown stands in the way. He tells Mandelson (now out of government, having been forced to resign for a second time) that he is going to take Brown on, that he is tired of being pushed around. But behind all the big talk, nothing happens, because Blair does not have the stomach for the fight. Then, on 11 September 2001, Mandelson encounters a different Blair entirely, no longer angry and exasperated, but exuding ‘a resolute sense of calm’. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Blair is relieved: here at last is a kind of politics that suits his intellectual temperament, far removed from all the intractable difficulties of his relationship with Brown. In his own memoir, Blair strongly reinforces the impression that 9/11 was a moment of liberation. Watching the plane hit the second tower, from his hotel room in Blackpool just before he was due to address a hostile TUC Conference, he realises this is an attack, not an accident. At that moment, he writes:
I felt eerily calm despite being naturally horrified at the devastation … At one level, it was a shock, a seemingly senseless act of evil. At another level, it made sense of developments I had seen growing in the world these past years – isolated acts of terrorism, disputes marked by the same elements of extremism, and a growing strain of religious ideology that was always threatening to erupt, and now had.
Within a short space of time, it was clear the casualties would be measured in thousands. I ordered my thoughts. It was the worst terrorist attack in human history. It was not America alone who was the target, but all of us who shared the same values. We had to stand together. We had to understand the scale of the challenge and rise to meet it. We could not give up until it was done. Unchecked and unchallenged, this could threaten our way of life to its fundamentals. There was no other course; no other option; no alternative path. It was war.
All this, Blair says, came to him in the 40 minutes between the first attack and the moment he had to tell the TUC that he would not be delivering his speech. ‘And it came with total clarity. Essentially, it stayed with that clarity and stays still, in the same way, as clear now as it was then.’
Less than three weeks after the attacks, Blair delivered his famous speech to the Labour Party Conference in which he said: ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.’ It was, in his own words, a ‘visionary’ speech, and he wrote it all himself, in the study overlooking the Rose Garden at Chequers, a single draft composed with little hesitation and no agonising. While he wrote it, he picked up from the desk a silver and gold inkstand given to Chamberlain in 1937, with an inscription that reads: ‘To stand on the ancient ways, to see which is the right and the good way, and in that to walk.’ (Really someone should go around removing these objects from Chequers before the more impressionable prime ministers move in.) In the speech, Blair went out of his way to link the war on terror with everything else he believed in. ‘This is a fight for freedom,’ he told his audience.
And I mean: freedom, not only in the narrow sense of personal liberty, but in the broader sense of each individual having the economic and social freedom to develop their potential to the full. That is what community means, founded on the equal worth of all. The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.
So this is what Blair means by digging down: you look for something that will let you join up all the dots. And when you have found it, you do not let it go.
In fact, Blair had been here before. In 1993, as Labour’s relatively new shadow home secretary, he gave a speech in response to the murder of James Bulger that brought him to national prominence, and served as a kind of template for his response to 9/11. The Bulger murder, Blair believed, in its depravity and its horror, served to make the connection between other, lesser crimes that might otherwise go unnoticed. ‘The headlines shock,’ he said, ‘but what shocks us more is our knowledge that in almost every city, town or village more minor versions of the same events are becoming an almost everyday part of our lives. These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.’ The isolated killing of one small boy explained the condition of Britain; as a result, it didn’t need explaining on its own terms. The Bulger case also served the useful function of helping Blair to come out from the shadow of Gordon Brown. Until that point, Brown had been the dominant member of the partnership (Blair even concedes that it was Brown who supplied him with what was to become his catchphrase: ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’). But Blair’s Bulger speech gave him a different status, as a big picture politician, unafraid to draw moral lessons, while Brown was still known for grappling with the nuts and bolts of tax and spend. Blair’s approach was lapped up by the tabloids, who started to see him as possibly one of their own. The analysis supplied by the speech was wrong, as even Blair now recognises (‘faulty’ is the word he uses) – this one murder did not reveal anything about the true state of British society, only at best something about some small part of it – but that was neither here nor there. Blair had found a way to make it all fit together.
His analysis of 9/11 was also wrong, but Blair is still a long way from being able to admit this. He accepts that it was an act of deliberate provocation, designed to draw the West into war, and he recognises that Western politicians had a real choice: they could have chosen not to be provoked. But going down that route would have meant simply ‘managing’ the problem, instead of confronting it. It would also have meant disaggregating the threat of global terrorism into its component parts, rather than seeing it as part of a greater whole. Blair can’t bring himself to do that. He still can’t bring himself to do it when faced with another crisis, the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006. Again, he acknowledges that Hizbullah firing rockets on Israel was ‘a quite deliberate provocation’ and that ‘Israel reacted to the provocation in the way that it does’: with total force. But he cannot agree with those who regard the Israeli response as counter-productive or an over-reaction, because that would be to miss the bigger picture. ‘By now,’ he writes, ‘I had come to see the entire conventional approach in dealing with this problem as itself part of the problem.’ So what was the real problem?
To most people, in July 2006, looking at the news it was the Israel/Lebanon conflict. I didn’t see it like that. I defined the problem as the wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us. To me, Lebanon was embroiled in something far bigger and more portentous than a temporary fight with Israel. Indeed, I thought the whole issue of Israel part of the broader picture.
By refusing to criticise Israel Blair did himself immense damage with his colleagues in the Labour Party, and almost certainly hastened the end of his premiership. But he would rather give up being prime minister than give up on his holistic vision of global politics.
Blair is kidding himself if he thinks his intellectual approach to the world’s problems has much in common with the forensic legal techniques of Derry Irvine. It seems more likely that it stems from the influence of his other great mentor and guide when a young man, the Australian priest Peter Thomson, who became Blair’s closest friend and confidant while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. When Thomson died earlier this year, Blair said at his funeral: ‘There are few people of whom you can say: he changed my life. Peter changed mine … He shaped my life, gave it meaning and purpose, and set its course.’ Thomson persuaded Blair that the only way to think about politics was to start with a view of humankind grounded in religion. As Blair puts it: ‘I begin with an analysis of human beings as my compass; the politics is secondary.’ Thomson also introduced the young Blair to the works of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who became something of a cult for the two of them and a few others at Oxford (Thomson liked to refer to Macmurray’s writings as simply ‘the Stuff’). Macmurray’s philosophy committed his disciples to seeing linkages everywhere: between individuals and communities, between rights and obligations, above all between words and actions. This last was very important for Thomson, whom Blair describes as ‘a doer not a spectator, and a thinker not just a preacher’: ‘His Christianity was muscular, not limp.’ Again and again in A Journey, Blair defends himself too against the charge of being just a preacher (Dick Cheney’s jibe ‘that preacher on a tank’ must really have stung). Macmurray ended his life as a Quaker, so it is unlikely that Blair got his taste for military action from that source. But Thomson’s example may account for another leitmotif of Blair’s personal philosophy and of this memoir: his obsession with what he calls ‘grip’. Faced with a challenge, Blair believes you have to do two things: first, you think it through; then you grip it. Merely ‘managing’ it is never enough.
The importance of grip was driven home for Blair at various critical moments in his premiership before 9/11. One came during the winter of 2000-1, when he faced a pair of domestic crises. The first was the fuel protests of September 2000, when blockades of refining plants in protest at rising petrol prices threatened to bring the country to a halt. Blair describes the rising panic in his inner circle – and in his own mind – about what could be done to prevent the chaos, until he decides to take a grip on the problem personally. He announces to a group of oil executives and police officers that he wants the picket lines broken up; if that provokes violence from the protesters, ‘let the army take care of them.’ The police like the sound of this, the oil executives don’t, until Blair makes some vaguely threatening remarks about mounting public anger at their excessive profits, at which point they start to get a hold of themselves. ‘I ended the meeting,’ Blair says, ‘satisfied we were at least gripping it and beginning the process of turning things around.’
The second crisis began in February 2001, with the discovery of foot-and-mouth at a farm in Essex. Before long, the disease had spread around the country, which meant a ban on British meat exports and the closing down of large parts of the countryside. Tackling the disease was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and its secretary of state, Nick Brown, who happened to be one of Gordon Brown’s closest allies (though no relation). Blair says he did not want to interfere, but became increasingly alarmed at Brown’s failure to get a grip. So he decided to do it himself. ‘There was pain, panic and real grief out there,’ he recalls. ‘The only answer was slaughter, and the only way to do it was fast.’ He goes on:
The challenge was how to do it. We could throw resources at it, but throw them where? At the weekend, I got down to Chequers early. It always helped me clear my head. I read all the papers, spoke to a few people. The chief vet Jim Scudamore was a good bloke, but he was overwhelmed. We all were. I got as detailed a briefing as I could. Then I just sat and thought.
On his return to Downing Street on Sunday, Blair concludes he has no choice but ‘to grip the whole thing’. He gathers his close advisers, who in this case include his chief scientific adviser, David King. King explains to him what needs to be done. ‘Essentially, by means of graphs and charts he set out how the disease would spread, how we could contain it if we took the right culling measures, and how over time we would eradicate it.’ Blair was sceptical: ‘How could he predict it like that, with so many unknowns? But, almost faute de mieux, I followed his advice – and blow me, with uncanny, almost unnatural accuracy, the disease peaked, declined and went, almost to the week he had predicted.’
But that is not the whole story. What Blair leaves out is that in this case too, he was only able to deal with the problem by calling on the armed forces, who took charge of the cull once it was clear that the Ministry of Agriculture’s resources were overstretched. I remember being struck at the time by how efficiently the operation moved once Blair had decided to call in the troops, and wondering what conclusions Blair would draw from this about the best ways to achieve ‘delivery’, given his obviously growing frustrations with the Civil Service and with the Treasury. Blair reveals that his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, overheard a phone conversation at the height of the crisis between the two Browns, during which Gordon warned Nick not to give in to Blair’s ‘presidential style’. It is a cliché of the Blair years, and not really true, that his was a presidential premiership: had it been, he could have fired Brown without having to worry so much about the consequences. But in this respect, the warning seems prescient. Even on his own account, for all his pose as a solitary thinker, Blair didn’t really grip the problem of foot-and-mouth himself: he found an adviser who was able to tell him what to do, and who made all the unknowns magically disappear. What Blair did do, however, was behave like a commander-in-chief.
The other place where Blair exercised his personal grip was in Northern Ireland, during the negotiations that secured the Good Friday agreement in April 1998. The chapter on Northern Ireland is the best in the book – engaging, forthright and genuinely dramatic. There is no doubt that Blair’s determination and charm played a big part in getting the parties to agree, as he is not shy of pointing out. Blair was told on his arrival at Stormont, where the discussions were to take place, that a deal was ‘a non-starter’ and ‘undoable’. ‘I took the decision then and there,’ he says, ‘to take complete charge of the negotiation.’ He mastered the detail, found the common ground, fudged the points of irreconcilable difference, and kept all sides from walking away in their moments of despair or disgust, until, exhausted after four days of non-stop talking, everyone signed up to an agreement it was far from clear that anyone really understood. It was a great achievement. But Blair is on far shakier ground when he says it is possible to extract from his experiences in Northern Ireland ‘core principles that have a general application’ to cases of conflict resolution around the world. His first principle is, predictably, ‘to go back to first principles’ and ask: ‘What is it really about? What are we trying to achieve? What is at the heart of the matter?’ The second principle is:
To proceed to resolution, the thing needs to be gripped and focused on. Continually. Inexhaustibly. Relentlessly. Day by day by day by day. The biggest problem with the Middle East peace process is that no one has ever gripped it long enough or firmly enough. The gripping is intermittent, and intermittent won’t do. It doesn’t work. If it was gripped, it would be solved.
It sounds too good to be true, and it is. (It also makes you wonder why Blair is only working part-time as the Quartet representative to the Middle East, fitting it in between his other, more lucrative activities, rather than focusing on it day by day by day by day.) What Blair doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge is that Northern Ireland wasn’t solved because he was able to grip it, but that he was able to grip it because it was ready to be solved. The circumstances were right, including, as Blair concedes, the economic circumstances. Northern Ireland was now affluent enough to make peace a more attractive option than war. Moreover, there was relative economic parity between the North and the South for the first time in their history (this is where any analogy with the Middle East starts to break down). Of course, the politicians still had to make it work. As Blair says, ‘Leaders matter.’ By that he isn’t referring only to himself, but also to the leaders of all the main parties. He concludes: ‘We were very lucky in the quality of leadership we had.’ Indeed, on his account, everyone was heroic: David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Bertie Ahern, John Hume, even Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan of the SDLP and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party. This also seems too good to be true. Was this really the golden age of Irish politics, akin to the United States in 1776, when a group of supremely talented individuals took destiny into their own hands? Or was it that they all could see the time was right to strike a deal? What is really remarkable is how often they keep coming back to the table, when it would seem to be easier to walk away. In the end, you have to conclude that walking away was the tougher option. This is not to downplay Blair’s role in holding the whole thing together. But his experiences in Northern Ireland are not going to be the key that will unlock peace around the world.
Blair’s mistake after 9/11 was to try to grip things that were not grippable, certainly not by him. First in Afghanistan, then Iraq, he vastly overestimated his ability to control what would happen. There were far too many unknowns, and nothing he or his experts could do to magic them away. Moreover, these weren’t his wars, they were America’s, and they were going to happen with him or without him. In those circumstances, his ability to exert any sort of grip was negligible. It is true that he had set the terms for American military action once before, in Kosovo, when he took the lead in pressing for a ground invasion to drive Milosevic out. In the end, Bill Clinton reluctantly agreed to back up Blair’s words with the threat of American military muscle, and Milosevic backed down. But Kosovo is not Iraq (any more than Northern Ireland is the Middle East). And George W. Bush was not Clinton. Blair makes a great deal of the closeness of his relationship with Bush, and describes how Bush regularly consulted with him and consistently impressed him with his grasp of the big issues. Yet he supplies no evidence that Bush ever actually listened to what he was saying or followed his advice. He tells us that in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan, he gave Bush the full benefit of his wisdom:
I was writing regular notes to him, raising issues, prompting his system and mine: humanitarian aid; political alliances, including in particular how we co-opted the Northern Alliance (the anti-Taliban coalition) without giving the leadership of the country over to them; economic development; reconciliation in the aftermath of a hopefully successful military operation.
This is designed to give the impression of a fully hands-on leader. But it sounds more like someone who has lost his grip on political reality. The person it brought to my mind was Prince Charles, who spent Blair’s premiership writing him and his ministers regular notes, full of his own advice and promptings. Charles’s handwritten letters, as Blair explains, were an occupational hazard of office. They had to be politely received, but could be just as politely ignored. Blair treats Charles in this memoir in much the way you imagine Bush treated him: half respectfully, half mockingly. He respects Charles’s sincerity, but pities his lack of political nous. The royal Blair really connected with, inevitably, was Princess Diana, to whom he devotes a whole chapter. Diana, he felt, had it all: not just the charm and the looks, but ‘a strong emotional intelligence’ and ‘analytical understanding’. Indeed, she showed a mind ‘that was not only intuitive but also had a really good process of reasoning’. All in all, she was a natural politician. ‘I always used to say to Alastair: if she were ever in politics, even Clinton would have to watch out.’ Here Blair is truly kidding himself (and as he admits, in the jaunty tone he likes to adopt when talking about the ladies, ‘I really liked her and, of course, was as big a sucker for a beautiful princess as the next man’). Diana was far too feckless and self-indulgent for politics. The would-be politician was Charles, who is more like Blair than either of them might care to admit. They share the same intellectual ambition, a taste for holistic philosophy and a sense of themselves as deep thinkers. Of course, the difference as Blair sees it is that Charles hasn’t really got any ‘grip’. So they share some of the same illusions as well.
After Iraq gravely weakened him as a prime minister, some of Blair’s illusions extended to his hold over domestic politics. He won the 2005 election, but only by default, against a still toxic Conservative Party, and one that lacked the guts to challenge him over Iraq. By this point, he admits, he had more or less ceded all control of economic matters to Gordon Brown (an admission that is designed in part to lumber Brown with the blame for not tackling the debt soon enough). At the same time, though, he feels that he is finally starting to master the job of prime minister. He knows what he wants to do and is no longer afraid of going out on a limb to achieve it. Only Gordon stands in the way, demanding that he begin the process of arranging an ‘orderly transition’. Blair is therefore deeply impressed by a letter he gets from Andrew Adonis, setting his predicament in historical context.
1. There are no ‘dignified exits’ and ‘orderly transitions’ – just exits and transitions, all more or less ragged and unsatisfactory. That’s life, I suppose.
2. The more successful prime ministers all left Number Ten with the least ‘dignified’ and most ‘disorderly’ transitions. Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher all possessed a will to power for a purpose until the very end … By contrast, the three long-serving prime ministers to execute ‘dignified’ and ‘orderly’ transitions are Wilson, Baldwin and Salisbury – all drained of energy and purpose, their reputations and uniformly disastrous legacies not enhanced by the warm retirement tributes.
Blair is inspired by this to stand and fight. He tells a newspaper that he has no plans to set an exit date. When the interview appears, it so enrages Brown and his supporters that they effectively seize the moment to drive Blair from office, forcing him within a week to agree that he will be gone by the following summer. So the effect of Adonis’s advice, and Blair’s characteristic lack of political calculation, is to achieve exactly the opposite effect of what was intended. He spends the remaining months of his premiership giving ever more ambitious speeches setting out his political philosophy, to ever diminishing returns. No one is really listening any more. But as Adonis predicted, he received plenty of retirement tributes when the moment finally arrived, including a standing ovation in the House of Commons following his final appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The last chapter of the book is devoted to Blair’s analysis of what went wrong after he left. Essentially, he blames Brown for departing from the New Labour template of public service reform, an emphasis on crime and anti-social behaviour and a rigorous avoidance of direct tax rises. He thinks the economic crisis was a missed opportunity for the government to reassert its New Labour credentials: instead of showing that it was serious about paring back the deficit and making the state more efficient, it retreated into its Keynesian comfort zone. Blair is clearly much more comfortable with the politics of the Coalition than those of the government it replaced. Does that make him a Conservative underneath? He denies it, saying that the Tories still don’t get it. ‘Their policies will be skewed towards those at the top, fashioned too much by the preoccupations of the elite (which is why they despised action on anti-social behaviour) and too conservative, particularly in foreign policy.’ So: not tough enough on crime, too reluctant to use armed force abroad – that’s why he’s not a Conservative! But the Tories also lack the right values, above all a consistent commitment to social justice. Many policies traditionally associated with the right are the ones progressives should support, and Blair insists that’s a good thing: ‘Defining where you stand by reference to the opposite of where the other person stands is not just childish, it is completely out of touch with where politics is today.’ What the Tories cannot manage, however, is to join up the dots. When they do the right thing, it is just by chance. When Blair does the right thing, it is because he has drilled down.
[*] The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson (HarperPress, 584 pp., £25, July, 978 0 00 739528 6).