Back in July, just before the body of Dr David Kelly was found in an Oxfordshire ditch, I suggested that the Westminster village was focusing on the wrong issue. “It is not: At what point will he stand down?” I wrote. “It is: What is the point of Tony Blair?” Months later, it has become fashionable for commentators to pose that second question. Months later, there is still no answer. Months later, earlier than anticipated, the first question has come into play. MPs wager bets about Blair’s demise.
It could come at the end of January, if he fails to win over the doubters on tuition fees . . . or in the spring, if he has had enough . . . or after June, if the local and European elections go badly. As Blair’s health becomes a matter of open speculation, the odds on his leading Labour into the next general election are lengthening.
The year 2003 was dominated by a single event – the war against Iraq. It was a year when Blair’s powers disintegrated. His powers of persuasion deserted him as he sought to convince doubters at home and abroad of the merits of his war against Saddam Hussein and of the merits of his support for George W Bush. His message to the US president was: trust me, I can bring them round. His message to the British people and to his party was: trust me, I know what is really going on. Many did, only to feel duped.
Those who tracked Blair’s diplomacy at the time, comparing his reading of events with the more sober assessments of the Foreign Office, suspected he had already committed himself to war. I found out only later just how early he had signed up to it: at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 – a year before hostilities began. Blair locked himself on to a course of action and committed an error that experienced diplomats would have avoided: he showed his hand, he gave up his bargaining chips. He fell into the trap of believing that Britain drew its strength and influence only through its special relationship with the US.
The war constituted a failure of diplomacy. It was not a criminal act by malevolent British politicians and officials. The people across government whom I interviewed for my book tried to identify the characteristics that led Blair to commit Britain to five wars in six years. These are decent people doing difficult jobs, who admit they do not understand how Iraq has gone so wrong. Most assent to the depiction of Blair’s foreign policy as a mixture of hubris, naivety and good intentions. They ponder how a man who seemed to have the world at his feet miscalculated so badly.
For the few weeks after Saddam’s statue had been toppled, it looked different. The military might of the world’s hyperpower had been displayed live on television, thanks to embedded reporters. The war had been prosecuted with breathtaking speed. Blair was urged by the ultras around him to capitalise on the “Baghdad bounce”. Go for the euro, they called, go for Gordon Brown. Blair remained supremely confident that the weapons of mass destruction which he had declared to be a real and growing threat to the UK and the world would be found. But as the so-called liberation turned into a quagmire, one of the terrible paradoxes of the war was to set back the cause of humanitarian intervention that had led Blair rightly to commit troops to Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The warnings of people such as Robin Cook, whose resignation on the eve of war transformed his standing in the party and the country, were justified.
As his international stock fell, Blair’s dream of being at the heart of Europe withered. The prospects of joining the euro had never seemed more remote. Such was Blair’s nascent weakness that Brown did not have to work too hard to deliver a negative assessment in June of the five economic tests. It was hard to find members of the cabinet who would defend the process that led to war. Jack Straw’s concerns, which led him to write a last-minute memo to Blair suggesting that British forces stop short of combat, epitomised the anxiety across Whitehall. And then the most tantalising question about the war: what did Cherie really think?
By the time Blair and his people were confronted with Andrew Gilligan’s broadcast in May on the Today programme, they were in a panic. They overreacted, with tragic consequences. A fortnight into the new year, Blair will be confronted by Lord Hutton’s report, which is likely to spread blame across the government and the BBC. The hearings over the summer not only shed light on Downing Street but opened an overdue debate about journalistic practice. The ills of the one side, however, cannot be used to exonerate the actions of the other.
As Hutton began his inquiry, Blair reached a landmark. On 2 August, he became the longest continuous-serving Labour prime minister, passing the record of six years and 92 days established by Clement Attlee, a man whose reforming zeal he sought to emulate. Perhaps a more apt comparison is with John Major, whose tenure Blair also overtook.
Blair cut a lonely figure. The coterie on which he so depended was dispersing. Alastair Campbell’s departure was felt keenly, not for his communications skills – those had long become a liability – but for his strategic sense. Good people were brought in: David Hill provided much-needed calmness to the media relationship; Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor began to put some coherence into a policy machine that had lost its way. But Blair relied on Campbell. His departure opened the way for Peter Mandelson to return by stealth, undoing the protestations of a “fresh start”.
Iraq also shifted the balance of forces at home. Labour MPs dismayed about the war joined forces with disgruntled former ministers and the 40 to 50 long-term critics to provide a loose but powerful alliance. Small-scale rebellions became weekly events. By November, the vote on foundation hospitals demonstrated the extent of the malaise.
Yet far from embracing his MPs, Blair could not shake off the habit of a decade. He continued to define himself against his party, rather than with it. He emphasised the message that autonomy for local hospitals would enhance diversity. He should have sold it by stressing how it would ensure better treatment for all. He was urged to portray top-up fees for higher education as what one cabinet minister described as a “profoundly socialist” measure. Instead, he talked of enhancing the status of Britain’s top universities. As the revolt grew, Blair provided the most striking sign yet of his loss of touch by staking his authority on the legislation. His brinkmanship has galvanised his MPs against him.
Blair said he would be judged on public services. There were signs of gradual improvement in school standards and in hospital waiting times. But instead of allowing the injection of billions of pounds for health and education to work, an impatient Blair sought systemic change to instil momentum. On law and order and asylum, the issues felt most keenly by voters, David Blunkett’s hyperactivity continued, with a stream of new legislation. The fears of the civil liberties lobby were drowned out by dire warnings of terrorism, the urgency of which was impossible to gauge. The authorities said potential attacks had been foiled, but that it was a matter of time before suicide bombers would strike.
The al-Qaeda network, far from being routed, appeared rejuvenated by events in Iraq. The link between Saddam’s Ba’athists and international terrorism that US intelligence agencies claimed before the war – and which few in Whitehall believed – materialised afterwards. This was another of the terrible paradoxes of the war. As Bush made his state visit to the UK, as London was a city besieged, al-Qaeda struck at two British targets in Turkey.
As a terrible year draws to a close, even those loyal to Tony Blair wonder what is left of his grand dream. They ask how two landslides have been so squandered. Where is the “narrative”, they say, the broad “canvas” that paints a new Britain since 1997? These grandiloquent promises were, after all, Blair’s. The second term was supposed to be the radical term. Labour had only the unelected House of Lords, Iain Duncan Smith and a rancorous press to contend with – nothing that could not be brushed aside with a little confidence.
The arrival of Michael Howard changed the equation. The polls shifted only very slowly, but, with money and organisation returning, the Tory operation shifted gear. Labour strategists are hoping that once his honeymoon period has ended, voters will recall Howard’s old persona. Benefiting most in the year, the Liberal Democrats’ victory in the Brent East by-election in September was spectacular. Charles Kennedy sought to combine the risks he had taken in criticising the war so early on with a more cautious approach to tax. But would a Tory revival in 2004 put an end to the Lib Dems’ resurgence?
With the Hutton conclusions and the vote on tuition fees looming in January, the mood on the Labour benches is as glum as it has ever been at any point throughout Blair’s ten-year charge of the party. Everyone in the cabinet is positioning themselves for the post-Blair era. For Brown, the wait is agonising. The moment cannot come too soon, but he cannot be seen to be precipitating the downfall. Would he be crowned unopposed, like Howard, or would his opponents be able to coalesce around a challenger? The few remaining Blairites cling to the hope that the wan figure of 2003 can be revived into a radical reformer. There lies the crux of the problem. One man’s reforms are not those of many in his party.
John Kampfner’s Blair’s Wars is published by the Free Press