Profile: Tony Blair. Driven, unrepentant and urgent – the leader who took us to war in Iraq is reborn as our saviour from the pandemic.

25 Feb

It is always difficult to know what to do after being Prime Minister, unless one can become PM again. In recent times, Harold Wilson managed that, and so did Winston Churchill, while Sir Alec Douglas-Home returned as Foreign Secretary.

In June 2007, when Tony Blair’s prime ministership was terminated by his own party (cf. Margaret Thatcher), he ruled out a comeback by standing down from the Commons too.

He didn’t have to do this. It would, of course, have been painful to remain in the House, for it enforces proximity, and he would have had to rub shoulders with those who had overthrown him. But Theresa May has shown it can be done, as did Edward Heath.

Blair has chosen another path, for which it is hard to find any precedent. What furies drive him? Why this frantic activity?

Almost 14 years after he left Downing Street, he addresses us, not as an elder statesman, but with the energy and urgency of a man who has persuaded himself he would be a better Prime Minister now, as a 67-year-old, than he was on entering Downing Street at the age of 43.

It is possible he is right. Not for him the error, committed by some on the losing side in the EU referendum, of issuing ever more hysterical denunciations of Boris Johnson, and supposing that these shrieks amount to an adequate position.

Here is Blair in a speech delivered on 15th January, telling Remainers why they must accept Brexit and make a success of it:

“I campaigned so long and so passionately against Brexit because I believed it to be a strategic error not just of policy but of destiny. I haven’t changed my mind about its wisdom. But reality is reality. We have done it. We must live with it. We should make the best of it. And as I have said recently, if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.”

But it is on the pandemic and how to deal with it that Blair is just now most audible. A Blairite apparatchik explained to ConHome why Blair can so often be heard urging swifter and bolder action:

“I think the simple fact is that he sees a vacuum – he doesn’t see Boris Johnson as the chief-executive-type Prime Minister, and sees Matt Hancock as very receptive to some of his stuff. He’s put a lot of the resources of his Institute into this – it’s a do tank as well as a think tank. 

“And he’s prepared to be quite bold publicly – he was the first person to advocate giving the second jab not in four weeks but in 12. He’d done the homework.”

When ConHome remarked to the apparatchik that Blair became more hated by Labour activists than any leader of the party since Ramsay MacDonald, he replied:

“The party felt we need a Clause Four moment to rescind Blairism and apologise for winning three elections in a row. The biggest problem with the Labour Party is it doesn’t like success. The darlings of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock and Jeremy Corbyn, were complete losers.”

There is an unrepentant quality about Blair which can render him utterly repugnant. Democracies expect, in those who aspire to rule them, a degree of humility.

The Commons, though full of hierarchies, enforces a brutal equality: no one who fights to win in that Chamber “can keep himself out of the reach of a knock-down blow” (as Sir George Otto Trevelyan puts it at the end of The Early History of Charles James Fox).

In 2007, Blair chose to leave that Chamber, where he had enjoyed an almost unbroken series of triumphs. Our democracy is designed to bring politicians back to earth, so they do not get too big for their boots, or at least not for long (see the careers of Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill and many others).

Blair by a fluke of timing was spared the devastating reverses suffered by most of his predecessors. The last election he lost was the Beaconsfield by-election of 1982. The following year, a bad one for Labour, he entered the Commons as MP for Sedgefield.

It is true that Labour continued for some time after that to lose general elections. But Blair himself was on the upward track, at first as apprentice to a gifted and altogether more experienced and better known member of the 1983 intake from Scotland, with whom he shared a windowless Commons office.

When Blair became shadow Home Secretary, his former room-mate, Gordon Brown, drafted an impregnable soundbite for him:

“Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.”

What decent person could object to that? Blair was on his way, and two years later, in 1994, when John Smith died, had the audacity to snatch the Labour leadership from under Brown’s nose.

Whoever became Leader of the Opposition in 1994 was pretty much bound to become Prime Minister, for the Conservatives had already lost the next general election. After Black Wednesday, 16th September 1992, when Britain was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Tory Party’s share in the polls fell to 30 per cent, where it stuck for the next five years.

Blair and his coterie naturally claimed, and came to believe, that Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 reflected their own brilliance. But as William Waldegrave, a minister from 1981-97, remarks in his memoir, A Different Kind of Weather:

“We Conservatives created their, and Blair’s, reputations for electoral genius; and we bequeathed them an economy that let them ride the boom years in populist style. Blair simply had to look like a renewed and more attractive version of us. He was able to do it – if his book is to be believed (and on this subject it should be) – because that was precisely what he was.”

In his early years, Blair possessed a self-deprecating sense of humour which preserved him against the charge of having become too big for his own boots.

Robert Harris – author of The Ghost, the rudest novel about a recent Prime Minister – has described the favourable impression which Blair used to make:

“I think when one knew him first off one of the charms of him was that he seemed, as he said, ‘a regular sort of guy’. I met him first in 1992, I think, and he seemed very much like the sort of man who would live next door to you – a fellow professional, commonsensical, friendly, approachable.

“Well, little did we know. It’s impossible to see the man he is now in the man that I knew. Who knew that he would become a great friend of George Bush and would want to keep bombing people and would become so passionately interested in making money? I mean maybe someone more perceptive than I would have seen it, but I never saw that at the time, nor – knowing a lot of the people who know him very well – did they.

“It’s a cliché to say that most politicians go mad if they’re in office for more than about six or seven years, and they become a member of a club and you become quite disconnected from reality, and I think there were in Tony things we perhaps didn’t realise at the time – of narcissism, a messiah complex, that had merely accelerated this impulse in him.”

For many, the disastrous outcome of the Iraq War in 2003 destroyed their faith in Blair. He had enjoyed an unnaturally prolonged honeymoon as PM, but this was followed by an even longer period in which few people could bear the sound of his voice.

For he sounded so vain, so pleased with himself, so impervious to criticism. Not a word of true regret escaped his lips. Everything he had done had been done in good faith.

This was intolerable. He did not stay in the Commons, where criticism would have been unavoidable, but floated off into the world of the super-rich, with whom he had long enjoyed taking holidays.

Here was a man who stood up for the rich and powerful. Even before he became Prime Minister he had described Pontius Pilate as “the second most interesting character in the New Testament”, and explained:

“The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man, but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate’s advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion. It is a timeless parable of political life.”

So it is, but after 2003 Blair’s sympathies were seen, by many of his former Labour supporters, to lie with warmongering plutocrats such as George W, Bush and Rupert Murdoch.

Blair continued to insist on his own highmindedness. His moral vanity became intolerable. When he was right about things – and his biographer, John Rentoul, has the courage to point out that Blair was often right – that only made him more annoying.

Rentoul concedes that Blair’s first office after stepping down as Prime Minister, in Grosvenor Square, “was so obviously just a replica of 10 Downing Street”, while “that place in Great Missenden is a replica of Chequers”.

Here was a man who could not admit to himself that he was no longer in office. He was pretending to himself that he was still a mover and shaker. And in Rentoul’s words,

“He thought that if there was a problem, the way to solve it was for him to roll up his sleeves and apply himself to it. He was restlessly looking for really difficult problems only he could solve.”

The first of these really difficult problems was the Middle East, where from 2007-15 Blair served as Special Envoy for the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia.

But his efforts are nowadays concentrated on the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, on whose website we read, in words which might have been drafted by Stephen Potter, President of the LIfemanship Correspondence College at Yeovil:

“Tony Blair is Founder and Executive Chairman of the Institute. The Institute is a not-for-profit organisation. The Executive Chairman plays a hands-on role in the strategic development of the organisation, and actively engages with leaders, organisations and debates that he believes are critical to our mission. Tony Blair and the executive staff run the organisation of over 200 staff based in 14 African nations, the UK, the United States, United Arab Emirates, Serbia and Israel. Tony Blair is the sole owner and Executive Chairman of the Institute, as set out in the Articles of Association, and he receives no remuneration for his work at TBI, to which he devotes at least 80 per cent of his time.”

We are reminded that as Prime Minister, he was already “a central figure on the global stage”, and “a passionate advocate of an interventionist foreign policy”, a claim which might also be made for Genghis Khan.

The word “Iraq” is omitted from this autobiography, which displays the author’s gift for careful drafting. Here he is on an earlier occasion, defending his record in office:

“For prime ministers today, a lot of the job is about getting things done, it’s about delivery… And unless you have a powerful centre, unless the prime minister has the power to do things, things just don’t happen…with things like foot and mouth and so on, these crises that hit you, the fuel protests, if I hadn’t gripped that and run it, never mind Cabinet government, run it myself with the ministers sitting round the table gripping it, salvaging it, it just would not have happened.”

This former Prime Minister knows how to create his own drama.

Blair was keen on the European Union, yet when the chips were down, he sided with the United States.

Disillusioned Remainers observe that as Prime Minister, Blair encouraged business to import as many workers as it liked from the EU, while taking no trouble to train British workers: behaviour which prepared the way for the No vote in 2016.

The Third Way used to be fashionable, but its leading figures – Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Blair himself – have not aged well.

Yet it is still possible to find oneself listening, as the day begins, to Blair holding forth on Radio 4, giving us the benefit of the latest ideas developed for him by the bright young policy wonks at his Institute.

Blair the Man of Destiny steps forward to save the nation. He has somehow forgotten that if one really wants to save the nation, one must work, as once he worked, with a political party that can win a general election.