Tony Blair’s appearance at Leveson: 10 key points

The former PM on media regulation, his relationship with Murdoch and the Daily Mail.

1. Blair denies ever doing a deal with Rupert Murdoch

Asked whether he knew anything of a supposed deal between Murdoch and David Cameron, Blair said he had “no knowledge” of such a deal. He added: "All I can say is Murdoch never made such an approach to me.”

2. Blair says that Murdoch did not lobby him on media policy

The former prime minister said that Murdoch “didn’t lobby me on media stuff” but said that this was “not to say we weren’t aware of the positions their companies had”. These included strong views against European integration. He added that on regulatory matters that had a direct impact on Murdoch’s business, “we decided more often against than in favour”. He added:

Am I saying he's not a powerful figure in the media? Well no, of course he is, and, of course you're aware of what his views are, and that's why I say part of my job was to manage the situation so that you didn't get into a situation where you were shifting policy.

3. He and Murdoch clashed over Europe. . .

This has already been widely reported, but Blair stressed that he and Murdoch disagreed over Europe. He said:

Europe was the major thing that he and I used to row about. I believed in what I was doing, I didn't need him or anyone else to tell me what to do.

As evidence that he had not changed policy for Murdoch, he said:

I would say very strongly we managed the position that I believed in on Europe and that was a position the Sun and the News of the World frequently disagreed with me on.

4. . . But agree on many other things

Blair stressed that on public service reform and trade unions, he and Murdoch happened to agree:

Our views may have coincided. But I believed what I was doing. I did not need him to tell me what to do.

5. Blair sent Rebekah Brooks a supportive message after she resigned

The former prime minister revealed that he sent a sympathetic text message to the former News International chief executive after she was forced to step down last year over phone hacking allegations. He told the inquiry: "I'm somebody who does not believe in being a fairweather friend”. He said that he did not know the facts, but that he felt sorry for Brooks. "I have seen people go through these situations, and I know what it's like”.

6. Murdoch and Blair are closer now than when he was in office

Blair confirmed that he is the godfather of Murdoch’s daughter for the first time (even though the story broke some months ago). He said that while he was in office, he had a “working relationship” with Murdoch, but now it was “completely different”:

I would not have been godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office. After I left office I got to know him. Now it's different. It's not the same.

He spoke warmly about his friend, saying that the media baron was “not a tribal Tory” who had certain views that were “very anti-establishment”.

7. He does not regret New Labour’s media obsession

Though his government has been demonised and caricatured for it’s obsessive chasing of positive headlines, Blair said that he has no regrets. Stressing the immense power of the press – across the board, not just limited to the Murdochs’ businesses – he said that implementing reform would have derailed his entire policy agenda.

This would have been an absolute, major confrontation, you would have had virtually every part of the media against you in doing it. And I felt the price you would pay for that would actually push out a lot of the things I cared more about. Although I think this is an immensely important question, I don't in the end, not for me, at any rate, as prime minister, was it more important than the health service, or schools or law and order.

8. Anti-war protesters look set to follow Blair wherever he goes

As I reported earlier, a man interrupted the morning proceedings to shout “this man is a war criminal”.

9.Blair denies ever briefing against colleagues

In what some have interpreted as a veiled comment on Gordon Brown, Blair said twice that he never asked the Sun to attack his enemies:

I did never and would never have asked her or others to conduct attacks on specific individual ... I absolutely hate that type of politics.

He specifically denied claims that No 10 briefed against Mo Mowlam.

10. Blair hates the Daily Mail

While he defended the Murdoch press, Blair had strong words about the Daily Mail:

If you fall out with the controlling element of the Daily Mail, you are then going to be subject to a huge and sustained attack. So, the Daily Mail for me - it attacked me, my family, my children, those people associated with me - day in, day out. Not merely when I was in office. And they do it very well, very effectively. And it's very powerful.

He said that the paper had a “personal vendetta” against his wife Cherie, and that her solicitors sent at least 30 legal warnings to the newspaper between mid-2006 and November 2011.
 

Tony Blair leaves the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories