I had been working for six months in the Cabinet Office when Tony Blair asked me to move through the Sir Humphrey connecting door to work in No 10 itself. My heart sank. Lance Price's book reminds me why.
I had worked in No 10 twice before - as a press officer under Jim Callaghan and as a private secretary to John Major. No 10 is a hothouse. When times are rough, it is a bunker. You are both at the centre of events and cut off from the real world. In this book, I found a near equivalent of much of my experience, set out vividly, shrewdly and often painfully.
Price sacrificed his private life. When he and his partner snatched the odd weekend away, he was carped at for slacking. He says of his boss, Alastair Campbell, that he has yet to meet anyone who has "known the man and not liked and admired him". I agree. But you can see the beginnings of what became an obsession on Campbell's part. Price's doubts about the all-out war with parts of the media were shared by Blair. If he hadn't been working so relentlessly, would Campbell have reached the point of his infamous, stressed-out assault on Channel 4 News? In the end, he had the good sense to back away and leave. But keeping a sense of proportion is, in No 10, under any government, almost impossible.
Price describes John Prescott as "variously charming, growl-ing, witty, incoherent, focused, muddled". His portrait of No 10 shows it, similarly, as variously professional, chaotic, tense, fun, ghastly and always frenetic.
Much of the story is now familiar: the constant sniping at No 10 from No 11; Gordon Brown smouldering and sulky; the perils of Peter Mandelson; the absence of working method. "We should," writes Price, "have a proper agenda for our meetings and reports back, however brief, with roles clearly assigned to people. But evidently that isn't the way that TB and AC want to work."
Blair himself remains as hard to "capture" from this book as he is in life. Anyone who has ever had a job interview with him will recognise the style from Price's first page:
Price: "Well . . . er . . . um . . . I've been speaking to Alastair."
Price: "Um . . . er . . . is that OK with you?"
Blair: "Yup. Absolutely. Great."
End of interview.
When I once ventured to give the Prime Minister some tactical advice before a meeting, he smiled at me indulgently and said: "Stephen, I haven't got where I am today without knowing how to ride several horses at once." This book shows Blair as the master of the three-ring circus. Roy Jenkins's report on proportional representation is "persuasive", though not enough to persuade. "Britain in Europe" is set up as a cross-party organisation to campaign for the euro, but it must be "kept in line".
The cruelty of politics is an abiding impression. Decent people such as Mo Mowlam, Donald Dewar and Helen Liddell are written out of the script. Robin Cook is denied access to the media during the 2001 election campaign, only to be pronounced "very good" when he is eventually allowed on to the Today programme. What did the spin-doctors expect?
There is also quite a lot that shocks. The Millbank tricks of the 2001 election campaign were more clever-dick than dirty. But new policies were plucked out of thin air because the Prime Minister had an interview to give. A speech supposedly given by the Deputy Prime Minister in London was in fact written and issued by Price while Prescott was on holiday in Cornwall. There is no evi-dence that Prescott ever even saw it. Many people inside the machine would laugh away these sleights of hand as trivial, but it is hard to square them with the Arthurian promises of the 1997 campaign.
Because Price was a press officer, he was more involved with selling policy than with making it. His book therefore gives an unwittingly misleading impression that government policy was all spin and no substance. Yet Blair is above all a serious politician who is in public life to achieve results. He emerges as a harder personality than the one I knew. In this portrait, he loses his cool and swears, things that I can never remember him doing in my presence. But he always had a rather touching belief in the political innocence of civil servants. Once, when a colleague and I were trying to persuade him to sup with a long spoon with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Blair said: "I think you had better leave the politics to me." Well, yes, Prime Minister.
The Cabinet Secretary told Price not to write this book. That is his job. But Price has spilled no state secrets. He was right to publish. And should not be damned. His picture of the government is sharp, often very funny, and always readable.