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Does Tony Blair deserve so much of our contempt?

Tom Bower slays the former Labour prime minister in his latest biography – but is it justified?

I doubt that Tony Blair leaped with joy when he learned that he was the next subject of a Tom Bower biography. The writer’s rogues’ gallery had so far included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al Fayed, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Conrad Black. Bower does not do fair, he does hatchet. Blair was clearly meat for the slaughterhouse.

After almost 600 pages of reputation-shredding, I must admit to a twinge of ­sympathy for Blair. Much of him was rubbish, yes, but this much rubbish? The winner of three elections came to power in 1997 after staging one of the great coups of postwar politics. The “Blair project” stripped Labour of decades of ideological dross and made it electable. It re-engineered the left of British politics and won the admiration of even Margaret Thatcher. Bower largely ignores this achievement.

Instead we meet Blair installed in Downing Street, surrounded by sycophants, but utterly unprepared for office and his ministers even less so. His confidence is total, his programme waffle, little more than a string of abstractions about things “getting better”, with some headline-grabbing targets to prove it. Within months, Blair emerges from Bower’s narrative like Frodo Baggins, wandering across Mordor with little sense of destination. He grapples with one venture after another – the fiends of the
NHS, bogus asylum-seekers, gold-plated academies – with Gordon Brown as Gollum and Cherie Blair as the Black Rider. Our hero has around him only a tiny band of loyalists, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Peter Mandelson, on whom he is pathetically dependent.

Bower’s technique is to select five topics – immigration, health, education, energy and war – to exemplify Blair’s style. More than 180 participants are interviewed and published records ransacked. He proceeds through Blair’s term of office chronologically, diving in and out of each subject in turn, much as circumstances forced Blair to do. He recounts little that is new to those who have trod this territory but he well conveys the pandemonium that is any modern British government.

Thus, on immigration, we see Blair trapped between his belief that newcomers are good for the economy and a slow realisation that this is electorally disastrous. As the inflow soars past half a million, with chaos at border controls, Blair’s ignorance of government process becomes stark. He blames officials, judges, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and even his beloved Delivery Unit. Eventually he goes on television
and simply pledges that the number of asylum-seekers will fall “by half within six months”. Blunkett is aghast at the naivety.

The same is true of the NHS and education. Blair’s initial approach is to rid the public services of Thatcher’s markets and hurl vast sums at them. As this fails to deliver swift results, Blair thrashes about, turns turtle, sacks ministers and appoints advisers, demanding ever more money from a truculent Brown. He seems quite unable to master the intricacies of government. When he complains that Jack Straw has been “captured by [his] department”, the retort is that Blair has been “captured by the fairies” – in this case the former BBC man John Birt, his useless aide.

A third of a million new NHS staff are hired even as productivity plummets. Doctors get a 30 per cent pay rise for shorter hours, yet the nation is still near the bottom of some health league tables. To Blair, promising is delivering. As one colleague observes, “It’s government by assertion, and hope that the facts will catch up.” In 2006 he promises to build 200 academies, at double the cost of normal schools, and then suddenly promises 400. Figures are snatched out of the air.

Blair and Brown indulge in competitive initiative-itis. Brown’s health action zones, New Deal for Communities and individual learning accounts (later dropped because they were too open to fraud) are countered by Blair’s strategy reports, delivery units and offices of government reform. Around the time of the gloomy 2005 ­election, Blair launches “five-year plans [for] each government department”, 20 targets for delivery and six “people’s promises”.

Blair is terrible at debate or criticism. He doesn’t like civil servants – whom Thatcher cleverly manipulated – and excludes them from his “sofa” meetings. As a result, minutes are not taken and little is done. Blair’s response to any crisis (meaning a poor headline) is to reshuffle the minister. Straw, Blunkett, John Reid, Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly seem to be in perpetual motion, their initiatives scuppered by Brown’s opposition and Blair’s failure to confront him.

At the centre of the web are Campbell and Powell, in charge respectively of presentation and executive decision. Campbell loathes the media and Powell loathes civil servants, so relations are fraught. They shut Blair off from Britain’s constitutional checks and balances – collective cabinet and an independent civil service. The prime minister is left with no levers to pull in his undoubted desire to make his country a better place.

The Downing Street madhouse also contains Cherie Blair (who hates Brown), Campbell (who hates Cherie), Anji Hunter, Blair’s director of government relations (whom Cherie hates), and Campbell’s wife (who seems to hate everyone). As for the black cloud next door, no prime minister has cursed himself with such a nightmare colleague as Gordon Brown. This bundle of envy and ambition – grossly overrated as chancellor – seems to end every conversation by slamming down the phone with the refrain, “And when are you f***ing resigning?” It is no wonder that Blair prefers to tangle with the Taliban.

All this is grippingly readable and Blair’s inability to assert sovereignty over Downing Street is the source for much black humour. Twice Blair summons up the courage to sack Brown and twice his courage fails. But Bower unbalances his criticism of Blair by disregarding the scale of the task that the prime minister set himself, especially against the history of Britain in the 1990s.

Detoxifying Labour was never going to end with the election victory in 1997. Blair understood that a new Labour approach to government needed to build on Thatcherism, not turn back the clock. Bower largely ignores Blairism’s debt to Thatcherism even where, in his selected topics, the continuities – privatisation and internal markets – emerged through the fog of war. Blair was obsessed with Thatcher, even making her his first VIP guest in Downing Street.

Labour’s old guard was never going to take this lying down. The public-service unions resisted, Labour councils resisted, Blair’s colleagues resisted. Brown may have been infatuated with City bankers and recklessly used private finance for hospitals, schools and the London Tube, but he cynically revived Old Labour as a weapon against the prime minister. It is to Blair’s credit that he never surrendered as David Cameron has done to George Osborne. Bower convincingly argues that he stayed in office so long in part to save the country from his “psychologically flawed” rival.

Where Bower is most convincing is on Blair’s wars. The brief conflict in Kosovo in 1998-99 was a success, with Blair stiffening Washington to sign up for bombing and forcing the Serbs to retreat. Thus emboldened, he appointed himself envoy to capture Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, again a worthy venture that Bower largely ignores. But from then on his obsequiousness towards George Bush, dismaying even the one general he trusted, Charles Guthrie, drove him to disaster.

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We now enter the maelstrom of dodgy dossiers, suborned intelligence and the death of David Kelly. The sole defence of Blair’s blindness to reality through the sorry saga is that he appears genuinely to have been deceived about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction through Alastair Campbell’s desire that the spymasters Richard Dearlove and John Scarlett “sex up” the threat. Blair’s reliance on Campbell, like his cowardice towards Brown, is a lethal thread through Bower’s narrative.

By the time of the orchestrating of the Hutton and Butler reports to whitewash Blair, the No 10 bunker has taken on the air of Nixon’s last days. There is the same contempt for process, the frantic survival instinct, the loathing of enemies. What is most remarkable is that Blair’s gift for presentation never leaves him. I recall being (almost) persuaded by his parliamentary speech on Saddam’s WMDs. Could a prime minister really deceive his country on this scale?

Bower correctly analyses Blair’s confused justifications for his warmongering. The invasion of Afghanistan was to teach terrorist regimes a lesson but it got sucked into soggy “nation-building”, with Helmand to become “a mini-Belgium”. Blair invaded Iraq to eradicate weapons of mass destruction but wrote in his memoirs that it was to topple Saddam, as “the whole future of Islam” was at stake. He wanted to crush “the forces opposed to modernisation”. War was a sort of New Labour project.

Blair’s final months were typical of the man. He halted a corruption inquiry into BAE in Saudi Arabia. He sacked the head of the committee on standards in public life, for too assiduously pursuing sleaze. He showered peerages on dodgy financiers. Twenty-five of Blair’s 292 peers gave a total of £25m to Labour. Blair seemed to see little wrong in rewarding donors with seats in parliament and was the first serving prime minister to be interviewed by the police, on three occasions. He was exonerated only at the moment of his departure in 2007.

Before he went, Blair passed into the future tense. He had saved and transformed his country. Now he would save the world. His diminished team planned his relaunch as a world statesman. An aide, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, decided he must reconnect “with the public . . . go with crowds wanting more . . . He should be the star who won’t even play the last encore.” He appeared on Blue Peter and Songs of Praise. Irritatingly, the Queen refused a farewell banquet. Instead, his final visitor was Arnold Schwarzenegger, of Hollywood and California.

Having failed in his attempt to become president of the EU, Blair gets Bush to appoint him to the diplomatic “Quartet”, supposedly to bring peace to the Middle East. The day after leaving Downing Street, he flies to Tel Aviv to get down to serious business. Ostensibly he is to be a diplomat but he combines that with making money.

The final chapters of Tom Bower’s book make for sad reading. Blair and Cherie set up a miasma of charities and companies, enveloped in offshore secrecy and security, while the taxpayer pays millions for Quartet civil servants and police protection. Bower shows how Blair uses his celebrity access for personal enrichment. He consorts with Colonel Gaddafi, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, anyone who will see him and accept a deal for a “consultancy”. He would tell all comers, “We do business and philanthropy,” adding the tired Blairism: “The purpose is not to make money; it is to make a difference.”

Bower recounts one visit after another to dodgy regimes and middlemen, borrowing jets left, right and centre. Blair still enjoys access to David Cameron, inducing him to pay a humiliating visit to Nazarbayev in 2013 as part of some unmentionable deal. By then his stock in the Middle East had plunged because of his ties to Israel’s Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu. He loses first his expenses, then his job, then seemingly his contact with morality: invited to speak for 20 minutes to a famine charity in Stockholm, Blair demands £250,000. The charity desperately suggests £125,000. Blair refuses.

Britain did not go off the rails under Tony Blair. Even if he sowed the seeds of economic woe, many grew rich and many more became less poor. Blair made Labour safe for Thatcherism, which, like it or not, was an achievement. He introduced a minimum wage, advanced gays, half settled Northern Ireland and created a mayor for London. Against his own judgement – and thanks to Brown – Britain stayed out of the euro. But there was no lasting reform of public services, which became the most centralised in Europe. Not one major power station was built. The overall legacy was a mess.

In the final analysis Blair must take responsibility for plunging his country into “wars of choice” that were unnecessary, immoral and hugely expensive, some £40bn in lives and treasure. This was the real hanging offence. Bower interviewed his first three cabinet secretaries, Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull. Each of them broke the customary silence of his office and said he did not regard Blair as “a laudable guardian of the public’s trust”. Bower is surely right to reach the same conclusion.

Tom Bower’s “Broken Vows: Tony Blair – the Tragedy of Power” is published by Faber & Faber

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue