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21 July 2003

So were the Tories right after all?

The question of Tony Blair's sanity is one that can no longer be avoided. Peter Dunn canvasses opini

By Peter Dunn

Nobody at M&C Saatchi seems to want to talk about the advertising agency’s most infamous product, the “demon eyes” election poster of Tony Blair. “Everyone is in conference talking to clients all day,” says cool Veronica firmly when I call. This is a pity, because I have an unusual question to ask: did the creator of that poster for the Tory campaign, withdrawn in the run-up to the 1997 election, after furious protests by new Labour, see something in Blair that the rest of us missed?

For several weeks, I have been talking to psychologists and psychiatrists about what drives the Prime Minister. One view emerged strongly: there appears to be something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, a man who doesn’t really know who or what he is. More technically, he is diagnosed as a psychopath capable of reinventing himself with remarkable dexterity, like an actor. What most people call “spin”, the routine lubricant of all political gearboxes, is, in Blair’s case, eloquent self-delusion on a heroic scale. He is one of the few politicians who has never told a lie because his belief in whatever he says – about public transport, hospitals, schools, weapons of mass destruction – is total.

It should be stressed that not all psychiatrists take this view. Blair has supporters inside the couch community, including Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and one-time therapist to Diana, Princess of Wales. “Any therapist who analyses at a distance is totally irresponsible and I don’t think I can help you on this one,” she said. “Why someone should have a psychological need to win or to lose or to be scared – to attach that to someone’s psychological condition – is totally off the wall. It’s like saying, ‘If Hitler hadn’t had a lousy childhood we wouldn’t have had the Holocaust’.”

Orbach has a point about remote analysis – except that the so-called psychological profile is now routinely used by the police to identify motivation and track down perpetrators in serious crimes. And the suggestion that, not to put too fine a point on it, Blair is mad is now firmly in the public domain. Even before 1997, the former Labour MP Leo Abse, now 86, applied Freudian analysis to both Tony and Cherie Blair for Tony Blair: the man behind the smile. Abse’s book, which is being updated for September, now seems extraordinarily prescient in its forecast of “government by dream which will collide with reality” and of a leadership “exuding the debased charisma of our pop stars and fashion models”. Abse argued that in blanking out the unions, poverty, fat-cattery – in effect depoliticising the Labour Party – Blair was “expressing his love to all and his hostility to none, excepting those who disturb his conflict-free dreams – consensus by diktat”.

More recently, the former Tory MP Matthew Parris, writing in the Times, tried to make sense of Blair’s belief that he was the one person on the planet who could reconcile Bush, the French, the Germans, the UN and the anti-war demonstrators. “The belief that irreconcilables can be reconciled by one’s personal contacts and powers of persuasion is a familiar delusion among people who are not quite right in the head,” Parris wrote. “While each futile promise is in the process of being demonstrated to be undeliverable, he goes into a sort of nose-tapping ‘watch this space’ denial. . . . Any bank manager used to dealing with bankrupts with a pathological shopping habit who have severed contact with arithmetic will recognise the optimism.”

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Then, in Prospect magazine this month, the neuropsychologist Dr Paul Broks, usually a fan of the PM’s, went further. “Suppose it turns out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote. “Suppose the Prime Minister was indeed party to the ramping-up of what flimsy evidence there might have been . . . in order to keep us on a pre-set course for war. . . Set this against his affiliative personal style and the profile that begins to emerge is that of the plausible psychopath – charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving.”

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I found Dr Sidney Crown, a former consultant psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital, in agreement with Broks’s diagnosis. “One of the biggest things about him [Blair] is that he doesn’t exist,” says Crown. “I know this sounds an odd thing to say but I mean it seriously. Right from the beginning, he’s always trying to establish some sort of existence which would make sense to him. I get this with actors who come to see me. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know who I am until I’m on stage.’ He loves being photographed because he knows he’s good-looking whatever the cartoonists say about his ears. And yet, he’s a scaredy-pants. The vanity and fear are all part of a devious personality and he’s extraordinarily clever about it. Right from the beginning, with anything difficult or unpleasant, he’s deputised someone else to handle it – like Alastair Campbell. . . Campbell is very much represented in Blair’s dark side, which is why they like each other. It’s amazing how he’s got away with it until now, but then, the psychopathic personality is very quick to pick things up and shift and move about.”

Therapists agree that the ability to disassociate yourself from the consequences of what you have done is a classic ingredient of the psychopathic condition. Dorothy Rowe, a much-published Australian psychologist, compares Blair’s style to that of Michael Jackson, the singer. “Both are dominated in adult life by fantasies,” she says. “I don’t see it as self-destruct; you just start to lose control over what’s happening to you. Jackson bought this huge tract of land and built his Neverland. Then he lost control of the way people saw his relationship with children. Blair has much the same sort of problem. It’s extraordinary that the party which seemed to have so much control over television is now so vulnerable to what it tells us when Blair loses the script. Remember that speech he made at the Women’s Institute? When the women barracked him, he fell apart, lost control. He couldn’t even save his face with a joke or self-deprecatory remark.

“People with power divide into extroverts and introverts. Being an extrovert troubles Blair a great deal. Extroverts can’t tolerate being disliked and their greatest fear is of chaos, which, by their nature, they create. They get elected on a domestic programme then find it’s a lot harder than they thought, so they escape from that by becoming a statesman. The core reason why he followed Bush so uncritically into war with Iraq was that Bush, an introvert, flattered him, told him he was the most wonderful person. Bush the introvert, Blair the extrovert: opposites attract. That’s why Margaret Thatcher, an introvert who didn’t care if anyone disliked her, got on so well with an extrovert like Ronald Reagan.”

Rowe insists that Blair is not a liar as defined by dictionaries; rather, as experts of the psychopathic condition will tell you, he has a gift for making unpalatable facts disappear. “There are lies we tell ourselves when we say ‘that didn’t happen’ when we know it did,” she says. “I don’t think Tony is the kind of person who would say, ‘I’m going to construct some lies about weapons of mass destruction.’ What he’s done is read the stuff the intelligence people have given him and he’s been highly selective, seeing just the things that appeal to him. He literally doesn’t see the things that tell him he’s wrong.”

“With all forms of psychotics,” adds Crown, “if you ask people about the consequences of what they’ve done they can’t tell you, because they’ve no ability to see the future.”

A respected broadcaster offers a more prosaic version: “I’m not sure I buy the psychopath view. In my opinion, Blair is an infinitely chargeable empty vessel. He’s got very little hinterland of belief or political experience – though he does have this inexhaustible capacity to absorb a brief and deliver it with enormous effect and passion.”

Blair’s gift for selling implausible dreams has fascinated Peter Bull, senior lecturer in psychology at York University, who studied his TV interviews in 1997 and has returned to Blair recently. “What’s really interesting about Iraq,” he says, “is that compared with 1997 he ceased to be ambiguous. In terms of rhetoric, instead of blurring all the edges, he’s taking an absolutely unequivocal stand. As a result, I think it’s the first time we’ve had serious doubts about whether he should continue as Prime Minister.”

So how much worse will it get? Very bad, according to Paul Taffinder, a psychologist who studies leadership. He suggests that Downing Street, sealed off from the real world behind its security gates, could be on the verge of a classic trauma syndrome commonly found in major companies under siege from shareholders. “IBM in the 1980s had the biggest corporate loss in history,” says Taffinder. “The world of its chief executive was pretty much a closed shop that ignored all the danger signals coming from the market. If you get a group which is cut off from reality, it tends to discount genuine criticism and has an urge to emphasise positive news. It gets worse until there’s an implosion.”