During an interview with Tony Blair
back in 1997, I slipped in a final question: “So, how are you going to avoid
going mad if you get to Number 10?”
The New Labour leader hesitated.
“Look,” he began. (“Look” is how Blair always starts an awkward answer; it
makes him appear sweetly reasonable and buys him time to think.) Sadly, he
never got to finish the sentence. “He’s not answering that,” Alastair Campbell
snapped. “If he answers your lot will run the headline, ‘Blair: I Will Not Go
Our soon-to-be prime minister gave
me a sheepish smile. A smile that was both a weapon and a shield. When I left
Blair after a long day, I didn’t feel I’d got any closer to the real man. I had
the not unpleasant sensation of having been had. A few weeks later, I voted for
After all the disappointments of
the intervening years, it’s worth recalling that New Labour, led by Anthony
Charles Lynton Blair, was returned with the largest majority in British
history. Blair, for all his faults, had the rare gift of making people want to
believe in him.
Thirteen years later, here comes
his memoir and finally I have the answer to my question. So how did Tony Blair
avoid going mad in Number 10? The answer, buried in 718 pages of A Journey, is
that he didn’t. You don’t have to be crazy to become prime minister, Blair
implies, but the job – 24 hours a day of unrelenting media scrutiny – will
practically guarantee you end up that way.
Blair says that he is writing a
letter to the country he loves. (No, not the United States.) With shoes being
thrown at him in the street, it’s clear that such love is no longer universally
reciprocated, though you could easily see this volume as an attempt to win it
A Journey will not change the
opinions of those who hate Blair the “war criminal”. Even the news that he
would donate his £4.6 million advance to the Royal British Legion was seized on
purely as evidence that he had a guilty conscience. (No matter that a
politician having a conscience at all makes a nice change.) But almost 100,000
copies have been sold in the first week; the loathing of Blair may well be
overstated. For fair-minded readers, this book will be a fantastic surprise:
erratically written, full of self-mythologising vanity and carefully calculated
candour, it is also funny, ruthless and unputdownable.
Elder statesmen tend to churn out
mellow, judicious tomes destined to gather the better class of dust. Hillary
Clinton’s catatonically safe Living History comes to mind. There is no such polite
tiptoeing around here. Conservatives were always worried that Blair wouldn’t
keep his promises while Left-wingers were always afraid that he would.
Liberated from having to please either group, Blair clearly relishes the
opportunity to tell it as he saw it. After years of minding his PMQs, our
former leader gives it to us with both barrels.
Failing secondary schools are
“basket cases”. The Scottish media was “a PhD dissertation about chippiness”.
Aggrieved pensioners are “Rottweilers on speed”. Before every election, Blair
recalls he had to be taught the price of basic items in shops so he wouldn’t
look “out of touch”.
Even more jaw-dropping, he admits
that Diana, Princess of Wales gave him advice. “Occasionally, she would phone
up and say… what could be done better.” The man who coined “the People’s Princess”
recognised a brilliant fellow operator in Diana: “We were both in our ways
manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able
instinctively to play with them.” Try to imagine any other world leader writing
that about himself.
Undoubtedly, the biggest domestic
casualty of this book is Gordon Brown. The one good thing to be said about the
pair’s relationship is that, after years of living next to Gordon, Tony knows
exactly how the Israelis and Palestinians feel. Although Blair is careful to
preface every comment about Brown with a tribute to his political brilliance,
the book prickles with dislike – even fear – of the neighbour from hell.
“Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero,” is Blair’s
verdict, “Gordon is a strange guy.” Now he tells us.
So why didn’t he sack Brown if he
was such an obstacle to reform? Blair insists he couldn’t dismiss his
chancellor when the economy was doing well because it would look spiteful and
the Incredible Sulk would have split the party. Fair enough, but there was no
excuse for not calling a proper contest when Blair stood down, knowing full
well what manner of man the country was about to be saddled with. Cowardly
stuff from a politician who congratulates himself on taking hard choices.
Blair’s other blind spot turns out
to be chaps with “great clanking balls”. Fondly, Blair concedes that his spin
doctor, Alastair Campbell, could be a madman, but makes no connection between
an increasingly hostile media and Campbell’s own thuggish tactics. Every world
leader in this book is an “amazing guy”. Even that risible despot Silvio
Berlusconi is lauded for showing leadership, that is to say, supporting Blair
There is wide-eyed, kid-brother
admiration for Bill Clinton’s “irrepressible resilience” in the face of sex
scandals. “I was convinced his behaviour arose in part from his inordinate
interest in and curiosity about people,” Tony avers. You can just see it, can’t
you? “Please step into the closet, Miss Lewinsky, in order that I might explore
my inordinate interest.”
Blair was always accused of being a
chameleon, and there are definitely two Tonys in this book. There is Bloke
Tony, who once claimed he was a regular kind of guy. And there’s Messiah Tony,
who knows that he’s an exceptional kind of guy and can lead Britain into the
Bloke Tony offers too much
information about being an animal in bed with Cherie – ugh – owns up to
drinking to cope with stress and needing plenty of time in the lavatory. If you
ask me, Bloke Tony writes suspiciously as though he still has Campbell crafting
tabloid sound bites for him. Say what you like about Lady Thatcher, she never
ended a paragraph of her memoirs with “Blimey, get a life”.
Messiah Tony, by contrast, offers
high-flown quotes from the Magnificat. “Hadn’t our strategies, like something
derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”
Still, being two-faced has its
uses. In a tense and dramatic chapter on Northern Ireland, we see how it was
Blair’s ability to be all things to all truculent men that allowed him to
broker the Good Friday Agreement. A moderniser who admits he’s “not really a
retrospective person” turned out to be the ideal man to defuse those ancient
Bringing peace to Ireland left
Blair “fulfilled and proud”. Deservedly so. Like his other achievements, it is
obscured now by the dark cloud of Iraq. The chapter on that war is the longest
and most tortured in the book. Blair becomes his own defence counsel, mustering
battalions of statistics to try to get himself off the hook. At one point, he
even compares the number of children who died under Saddam with the number who
perished in the invasion and its nightmarish aftermath. Desperate stuff.
When Tony Blair was a schoolboy at
Fettes, one tutor said: “He was so affable that you couldn’t call him reserved,
but you never saw his real self. He didn’t like to expose himself in case
someone spotted a weakness.” That holds true in these fascinating but oddly
impersonal memoirs. Like an inverted Polo, the multimillionaire Blair could be
described as a hole with a mint.
He was the prime minister most
driven by religious faith since Gladstone, yet the C-word – Christianity – barely
appears here. On the final page but one of the Postscript he says, “I have
always been more interested in religion than politics.” That’s one hell of an
He can be equally opaque about his
stronger emotions. See Blair on page 455 reflecting on the suicide of Dr David
Kelly, the scientist who became an innocent casualty in Number 10’s dispute
over weapons of mass destruction. “It was so sad, unnecessary and terrible,”
Blair writes. Then turn to Speaking for Myself for Cherie’s parallel account of
Dr Kelly’s suicide: “I have never seen Tony so distraught… In the 25 years
since I had known Tony I had never seen him so badly affected by anything.”
Such wracking pain and remorse have
no place in A Journey, though it is the untold tragedy of this book that the
most consummately brilliant politician of modern times will have to spend the
rest of his life atoning for one fatal flaw. The story Tony Blair prefers to
tell himself is of how a hugely popular politician who would do almost anything
to be liked matured into a courageous statesman standing almost alone in
defence of what he believes to be right. “Once public opinion had gone sour it
didn’t seem to matter whether what the Government did was right or wrong,” he
reports, as sad and bewildered as any spurned lover.
David Cameron should read this book
and be afraid. Be very afraid.