Bliar

Peter Mandelson’s memoir confirms how slippery Tony Blair was as prime minister.

Andrew Sparrow, on the Guardian's politics blog, highlights this particular extract (below) from Peter Mandelson's new memoir, The Third Man, which relates to a conversation Tony Blair had with the self-described Prince of Darkness in 2003.

Blair had done a "deal" with Gordon Brown over standing down before the 2005 election at a meeting with Brown and John Prescott, and here Mandelson relays the then prime minister's summary of that meeting:

"What I've told him [Brown] and John, and I really mean it, is that if Gordon really backs me and helps me and implements my policy, I'll be happy to step down."

"Really?" I asked. He [Blair] paused a moment before replying. "Well, I don't think he'll help me. So the situation won't arise. It won't happen. But I've got to do this -- so play along."

This is classic Blair: slippery, evasive, lawyerly, disingenuous. (I love the "I really mean it" and the "paused a moment before replying" and the "play along").

Our former prime minister spent years -- in the Commons, in press conferences, in TV interviews -- formulating and constructing his sentences and, in particular, his denials, in such a way as always to allow himself wriggle room, if not an out-and-out get-out clause. I remember, as a producer on ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme, preparing for interviews with Blair in the run-up to the 2005 general election. Back then, my colleagues and I were in agreement that it was impossible for Jonathan to pin him down.

And never forget the way in which he defended his decision to go to war in Iraq, telling the Labour party conference in September 2004:

The problem is, I can apologide for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.

The New York Times aptly referred to it at the time as "an apology, of sorts, over Iraq". The thing is, nobody asked him to apologise for "removing Saddam" or for the information being "wrong"; we wanted an apology for his misrepresentation of the "sporadic and patchy" intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and for the catastrophically bloody consequences of the 2003 invasion.

But that was Blair for you: always ready to frame the question and the answer in a manner that best suited him and his interests. And he expected the rest of us to "play along".

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.