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.

David Gauke: How the Conservatives are morphing from a party of power to a party of protest

5 Dec

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Harold Wilson sought to make the Labour Party the natural party of Government, but failed. Years later, Tony Blair sought to fulfil the same ambition and – with the three successive general election victories – came closer to success.

Yet just over eight years after he stood down, the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. As Blair pointed out about himself, he had been ‘the person in power taking difficult decisions’ whose face was ‘on the placard’ whereas ‘Jeremy is the guy with the placard, he’s the guy holding it. One’s the politics of power and the other’s the politics of protest.’

Labour has never quite escaped the politics of protest. In part, this is a product of its history. The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of trade unions and their members. It exists to represent one section of society, not to govern all of society.

There is also a question of temperament. As a party of the Left, it has tended to attract dreamers and idealists who value ideological purity and the clean conscience available to those who do not have to take responsibility. It has always been a party for the placard-holders.

The Conservative Party, in contrast, exists for the purpose of being in power. One way or another, it has been in office for 67 of the last 100 years and, as such, can claim to be the natural party of government. It is a party capable of obtaining and retaining power but also a party changed by the experience of power.

Its reputation as the party of government has helped it reassure small ‘c’ conservative voters; the greater Ministerial experience attained by Conservative politicians has given the party greater credibility in contrast to its opponents; a track record in Government also demonstrates a willingness to make tough decisions – such as the economic reforms of the 1980s or 2010s – which helps win the public’s respect, if not its affection.

There are disadvantages, too. The Conservative Party has been seen as not just the party of government ,but the party of the establishment. When social mores change, it can look outdated and the defenders of privilege, as it did in the 1940s, ‘60s and ‘90s. And given that to govern is to choose, some of its choices will displease. Policy decisions involve trade-offs, sometimes very difficult ones. In government, one cannot escape that.

There are certain attributes necessary for a party to acquire and retain a reputation as natural party of government. Of course, it has to obtain power. But it must also demonstrate and value administrative competence; it must be able to live in the world as it is, not as it would like it to be; it must be willing to take tough decisions on the basis of a realistic understanding of the consequences; it must recognise that what brings immediate popularity does not always translate into long term electoral success; it must apply its principles in a manner that appreciates the practical implications in changing circumstances. Fundamentally, it should be a party that feels much more comfortable – in Tony Blair’s phrase – with the politics of power, not the politics of protest.

How comfortable is the Conservative Party now with the politics of power? It is tempting to answer this question by focusing on Boris Johnson. He was elected as leader of the party not on the basis of his record as a successful administrator (most Conservative MPs, including many who voted for him, would have said that his Ministerial record was the least distinguished of all the contenders), but as the candidate who could marginalise Nigel Farage and reunite the Leave coalition.

This proved to be a correct assessment, at least for the moment. But Johnson’s approach to Brexit has long been to ignore the hard questions – the trade-offs between sovereignty and market access or the Northern Ireland border – with a ‘have your cake and eat it’ optimism and mutually contradictory promises.

At the time of writing, he is in the uncomfortable position of having to make a choice on a deal that will mean, either way, at least some of his promises are broken. If, after months of hesitation, he goes for a deal – and I hope he does – he will face the fury of sovereignty purists who have never come to terms with the reality that free trade deals necessarily involve some constraints on what a country can do.

The Prime Minister also faces a challenge to his authority on Covid-19. The crisis has been testing for him, and he has looked ill-suited to the challenge. But his relative caution on restrictions reflects the realities in front of him. It suggests that he has looked at the evidence and concluded that if you go too far in loosening restrictions, the virus very quickly spreads. This would not only cause many deaths but also damage the economy because of voluntary changes in behaviour. It is hard to imagine any of his predecessors reaching a different conclusion in the circumstances. In this sense, Johnson is acting like a conventional Prime Minister.

Conservative MPs, however, are not giving him the benefit of the doubt. In some cases, there are legitimate constituency concerns but in other cases, the laudable desire to protect individual liberty has resulted in a willingness to engage in wishful thinking.

Some have fallen for a succession of optimistic but wrong predictions – ‘the virus is burning itself’, ‘the new cases are just false positives’, ‘higher cases won’t necessarily mean higher deaths’, ‘lockdowns do not work’ – that get discredited before moving on to the next argument.

This is partly ideological. It is also partly about the changing nature of being an MP. Members of Parliament are increasingly seen as local champions first and foremost. They are more inclined to organise themselves into ‘Research Groups’ that act as parties within parties, content to define themselves by contrasting themselves against the Government rather than as being part of the Government.

It is less about being part of a team that seeks to govern the country but more about representing particular viewpoint or constituency. It is less about solving problem; more about taking a stand. It is a change in attitude that makes it harder to accept compromise, to recognise trade-offs, to temper principle with practicality. We have seen this for years in the context of our relationship with Europe; we have seen it increasingly in recent months in the context of Covid restrictions. I suspect we may more of this when it comes to tackling the public finances.

The Conservative Party has become less disciplined and more comfortable with the politics of protest. In some respects, Boris Johnson is a natural leader for such a party – a columnist and controversialist; an insurgent rather than an administrator – but it would be wrong to ascribe the change in the party to him. He is a symptom not the cause, reflecting changing attitudes amongst MPs, party members and many of its supporters. It may still have an appetite to be in office, but the Conservative Party no longer has the temperament of a natural party of government.

Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

– – – – – – – – – –

The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

– – – – – – – – – –

After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

Damian Grimes: Out of office but in power. How the Left keeps losing elections, yet gets its way nonetheless.

26 Aug

I appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live last weekend. To put it bluntly, I was surprised to get the bid from the producer (who was a delight to work with) to speak about education. I know the BBC is set to spend £100 million on boosting its diversity and inclusion, but I felt that diversity would stop short at cultural conservatives from working class backgrounds who don’t have degrees.

The appearance itself was over in about ten minutes. I felt it went pretty well. I argued that we have a relentless focus on the 50 per cent of kids that finish their 16-18 education taking A-levels, at the expense of the other half that do not – who tend to be our country’s least well off.

And that it’s wrong to attack the seven per cent of kids that go to private schools, instead of discussing why it’s no longer the case – as it was for an astounding 33 years, from Harold Wilson to John Major – that our Prime Ministers are educated at state schools.

Yet later – as I was sitting down preparing to stuff my face silly with Yorkshire puddings – I had a text from a mate informing me that I was trending on Twitter, and that the mob was outraged.

“What the hell have I done now?” I pondered aloud, as I read tweets going viral with their own alarming R rate, including offerings from an Oxford professor and those with EU flags in their Twitter biographies.

I grasped that my crime was to be “uneducated” – an ignorant oik with ideas above his station. How dare someone who once worked as an apprentice hairdresser offer his views on the BBC? And more importantly to them, how dare the BBC offer up the opinions of Someone Who Isn’t Like Us?

Ben Norton sagely pointed out on Twitter that the same Oxford professor who places such a high bar for TV slots, with general snobbery for the likes of me, applies a different standard when it comes to the terrier-sized teenager Greta Thunberg, who lectures us all on the science of climate change without any of the qualifications you would generally associate with such a platform.

The incident got me thinking about why the Left keeps losing.  It focuses too much on issues that appeal massively to city-dwelling Twitter, so reinforcing its own biases. It convinces itself that the endorsements of actors and pop stars will see them through to victory. They believes that there’s a majority which cringes Rule Britannia, and dislikes rituals of national celebration, or having pride in place and nation. And it seems to think that the only issue which matters right now is self-ID reforms for trans men and women.

Does any of this matter? You might wonder why I’ve chewed your ear off for 500 words on how much of a left-wing cesspit Twitter is: why the hell I even bother myself with it? As Jonathan Swift once said, it is “the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.”

The same can be said about Twitter. But the problem arising from it is that those on the platform are disproportionately in the media – policy-makers and commentators who are in a position to shape public policy and shape the national debate to their liking. Their views, mirroring Twitters, are reflected in our institutions.

For a Conservative Government serious about levelling-up, focusing on those that don’t do A-levels upon leaving school and ignoring the blather about private schools should be a priority. For a Conservative Government serious about challenging the Marxist march through our institutions, getting conservatives into positions of power should be a priority. And for a Conservative Government serious about winning again, sorting out the immigration crisis in the English Channel should be a priority.

The consequences of ignoring all this, and comforting yourself with the knowledge that the loony Left keeps losing elections, is this: each time a politician bends the knee, the BBC indulges itself by removing anthems, a museum removes a bust to rewrite history, and rioting is ignored by the police, we move one stop closer to allowing a tyrannical Twitter-dwelling minority to become very powerful indeed.

In responding to the news that only orchestral versions of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! will be played at this year’s Last Night of the Proms, Boris Johnson said: “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.”  Wise words, Prime Minister, wise words – but what are you going to do about it?

It might not be fashionable for people like me to express my views about our national broadcaster on Twitter, but for a Government with an 80-seat majority to also be rendered unable to focus on and fix these pressing issues is a sign that, yes, whilst the Left does indeed keep losing, it’s not really all that far from the levers of power.