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".

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

 

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.