Deep into Tony Blair’s best-selling memoir, he explains why he slashed the number of official dinners and banquets soon after he entered Downing Street. ‘There is no greater political torture than the after-dinner speech,’ the former premier declares. This pained aphorism, one of many buried in the 691 pages, is of course wonderfully, richly ironic. For not only is this a man whose political celebrity commands astronomic fees on the global speaker circuit; he’s also the author of a book that itself often resembles an extended after-dinner speech.
In the United States, where Blair is still feted and for whose citizens much of A Journey seems tailored, they do their speeches before dinner in order to keep the guests alert and interested.
However, sustaining an audience’s attention has never been a problem for the former Prime Minister and his memoir uses all of the tricks of the speaking trade: hammy anecdotes, hints of gossip, a sense that he’s not just imparting professional wisdom, but also pulling back the curtain on a secret world. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience for a time, until it sinks in that you want explanation as well as anecdote, detail as well as broad brushstrokes. Put simply, you end up wanting less ham and more meat.
From the very first page, one thing rapidly becomes clear: there is no Ghost. Even if we didn’t know that Blair had written the entire thing out in longhand, we know that no professional ghost-writer would dream of using the great clunking prose that guides us along this particular Journey. Some sections read like pure Private Eye parody, the caricatured Blair made real, complete with strummed guitar, suntan and sweary jokes.
We learn, for example, that he sometimes passed Saturday lunchtimes in Number 10 not just watching BBC1’s Football Focus, but pretending to be a pundit. The phraseology is classic blue-jeans, alpha-male Blair. He tells us that when he learned to box at school it was important not to ‘do it like a wuss.’ He relates that former Australian PM Paul Keating “thought Rupert [Murdoch] was a bastard, but one you could deal with.’ Opponents talk ‘cobblers’ or ‘some such bullshit,’ Alastair Campbell has ‘great clanking balls’ (beware, there’s lots of ‘balls’ in this book) and the NHS annual report gets ‘binned.’
Gladstonian it aint. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many exclamation marks in a political biography in my life (half-apologising to the Labour party, he says ‘I put them through a lot!’). At one point, he describes the atmosphere in Number 10 as ‘extraordinarily hyper.’ At another, he ridicules the Finns over some perceived slight at an EU summit: ‘I thought, Blimey, get a life.’ No one else could dream of putting into print such lines as ‘When all’s said and done I’m a public service guy at heart’ or, referring to one PMQs by stating that ‘I had much better karma in doing it.’
When he uses dialogue, the prose edges towards breathless melodrama that would make Peter Morgan blush. Here he is describing the moment he told Peter Mandelson in the Commons Members’ Lobby that he was going for the Labour leadership:
“’Peter,’ I said, putting a hand on each shoulder, “don’t cross me over this. This is mine. I know it and I will take it’.”
But to pick holes in his prose is to miss the point of this book. In typical Blair fashion, he’s tried to ‘modernise’ the very nature of political autobiography, subjecting it to the same treatment he meted out to the Labour party and the British constitution: New Labour, New Memoir. So what we get is part instruction manual for CEOs (including lots of advice on time management), part airport novel, part celebrity paperback. What we don’t get is much in the way of granular detail or strict chronology. Instead of methodical recall, we get the funny stories (and the one about Prescott balancing his teacup on his belly in front of Prince Charles is genuinely funny). It boasts a style that veers dangerously from the merely breezy to the downright cheesy. This is a book that’s clearly meant to be read in the back of company limos, in commuters’ carriages and even by the pool by tourists. Like him, it’s a unique creature, a phenomenon. And like him, it is at turns impressive, infuriating, beguiling, engaging and strangely disappointing.
The canvas on which Blair works is well known (the TB-GB rows, his views on war and peace), as are many of the sketches he draws. He does add in previously unseen blocks of colour, but often the problem is that he’s an impressionist rather than a figurative painter. The untraditional nature of this memoir – its thematic approach, its self-contained chapters – is what makes it so readable. Yet that is also what makes it at times so frustrating. Like those after-dinner speeches, there are glimpses of the real story that simply leave you wanting to know more. The real Ghost turns out to be not the ghost-writer, but the inner Blair, a being who makes fleeting, tantalising appearances in the text only to rapidly dissolve back into the adventure story. The real Blair is quickly swamped by a list of Tony’s Triumphs or yet more bludgeoning about his worldview of ‘asymmetric warfare.’
At times he butterflies about in the narrative in way that makes Ronnie Corbett look like a model of straightforward story-telling. One minute we’re in 2001 and the foot and mouth crisis, the next we’re at a photo-shoot in the 2005 general election. In a typically bawdy passage, Blair recalls meeting a working class grandmother in a park:
“’You’re better looking than on TV,’ the older woman remarked, sizing me up like a piece of meat. ‘You can come again,’ I said jauntily. ‘I just ‘ave,’ she said, a story Kate regaled to an embarrassed Gordon.”
The aim seems to be to get across the message that he’s a ‘regular’ guy, essentially normal, or at least in touch with public opinion. Indeed, one of the best sections of the book covers the idea of how ‘normal’ politicians have to be in the modern age. He’s shrewd on the need to be seen to be ‘connecting with the people’ and all the artifice of photo opportunities and constituency visits that entails:
‘The public aren’t stupid, they know the Prime Minister doesn’t actually tootle off to the supermarket like they do. They don’t want to know that he actually does live like one of them, but they want to know that he could, and more important, they want to know that he feels like them, that they could get on. This is nothing to do with upbringing or class or background….It’s about being authentic. To be sure, if you weren’t naturally a bloke people would like to have a beer with and you’re running for office, it is a problem. It may be irrational, but it’s true. I always used to say to people about George Bush; don’t underestimate his appeal as a normal guy.’
Of course, the whole point about Blair is that he is certainly not ‘normal’ when it comes to his political record and talents. His fabled emotional intelligence is based on an abnormal feel for the normal voter’s instincts, if you like. Yet he is also abnormal in the more usual sense of the word. For one thing that does come across at times in this book is just how plain strange he can be. The month before John Smith dies in 1994, Blair spends a weekend in Paris with Cherie:
“I said to her: ‘If John dies, I will be leader, not Gordon. And somehow I think it will happen. I just think it will.’ Is that a premonition? Not in a strict sense, but it was strange all the same…I returned from Paris exhilarated and again with this curious sensation of power, of anticipation, of prescience. Then John did die.”
This preternatural, almost supernatural, sense of destiny isn’t isolated. When he arrives at the Central Lobby of the Commons for the first time in 1980 or 81 – he doesn’t bother to research which – he says he was ‘thunderstruck’ by the place: ‘I had a complete presentiment, here I was going to be. This was my destiny.’ You can’t help feeling that this ‘presentiment’ is actually religious and that what he’s actually talking about is divine intervention. But, possibly with one eye on his ‘normal guy’, he knows that would make him sound like a fruitcake.
Which actually brings us to one of the biggest gaps in the book: how Blair does God. For a man who says that his religious life is more important than his religious life, it’s bizarre that he devotes virtually no time at all to the spiritual. The closest we get is a passage describing his pre-PMQs rituals, when we learn that he prayed every Tuesday night to steel himself. Another reason Blair may want to shy away from the religious is that he wants to be seen as a doer, not a thinker. In an entirely different context, he explains why lefties like Tony Benn never achieve anything: ‘He was the preacher, not the general. And battles aren’t won by preachers.’
Battles are something that Blair is all too familiar with, of course, and the book ploughs through Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan with no real surprises. Still, at times he is compelling on the life-and-death decisions that Prime Ministers have to take. At one point, he describes how he sent in the SAS to rescue British soldiers taken hostage by Sierra Leone’s bloodthirsty RUF rebels. The soldiers were rescued but an SAS soldier was missing in action:
‘I wandered around the flat for a while, imagining who he was, what he looked like, how he had felt going into the operation, the nerves, the adrenalin, the realization that death might be moments away and I reflected on a life lost, a family in mourning.’
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sierra Leone seems to have been Blair’s first ‘blooding’ in warfare, a relatively smooth mini-conflict that emboldened him to take on Milosevic and ultimately Saddam. Other formative experiences are listed too. We learn how Blair first stood up to a bully in the playground. We hear of how he tried to reprimand a man urinating in the street, only to be scared off by the threat of a knife. He relates how deep an impression the Spielberg movie Schindler’s List left on him: on how failing to act has just as much moral import as intervention. On Iraq, we know much of what he has to say already. But Blair allows the mask to slip occasionally, stressing how heavily it weighs on him. He describes meeting a dead soldier’s family in Downing Street in 2007: I didn’t justify decisions or make a case. I just let them ask questions and then I asked them about him and they painted a picture of him with pride. After about 40 minutes, I asked to spend some time alone with the widow. We talked for a bit and suddenly I was overcome with tears.’
For all the sneers one may be tempted to make at Blair’s overall career, here his sincerity is indubitable. He says that all of the wars have left him with a ‘sadness’ that will hang over him for the rest of his life. There are other similarly revealing moments. The chapter on Diana gives real insight into that bizarre episode of British life. In many ways the Northern Ireland chapter is the most exciting and gripping of all. It’s also interesting that fear seemed to stalk much of Blair’s political career: fear of failure, fear of Gordon leading a left-wing revolt, fear of the media’s power, even fear of PMQs: ‘Even today, wherever I am in the world, I feel a cold chill at 11.57am on Wednesdays, a sort of prickle on the back of my neck, the thump of the heart…..’ the walk ‘from the cell to the place of execution.’
It’s pretty hard to believe this hyperbole. And believing Blair is one of his central problems. It’s not that his integrity is in question, it’s his own gift for what he politely calls “manipulation” of others. He admits he was ‘disingenuous’ to get certain ends, that he misled Brown about his plans for resignation.
There is also the classic Blair feature that often his self-deceptions are greater than his deceptions. (He describes his love-affair with the public in 1997 as ‘a deception on both our parts … a delusion’).
Still, deception is a good word for the way Blair dealt with Gordon Brown. One of the most eye-popping revelations comes on page 608, when Blair describes his explosive meeting with his Chancellor on March 15, 2006. The pair were rowing over pensions policy, but the backdrop was the cash-for-honours affair. Brown effectively tries to blackmail Blair. If Blair agrees to dump Lord Turner’s radical pension proposals, Brown won’t call for an NEC inquiry into the peerages claims. The pensions row was merely a proxy for Brown’s desire to see Blair resign, so this was all about the Chancellor’s deep anguish that the PM had not yet ‘cleared the way.’ Blair disdained the threat, but he implies Brown then got Jack Dromey to trigger a police inquiry that dogged the rest of his premiership. Amazing stuff.
Similarly, Blair later prints a devastating letter from Lord Adonis warning him in 2007 that Brown will be a ‘weak but extended interlude between you and Cameron.’ In the end (as Blair would say), we are left with the most glaring contradiction of all. Blair showed ruthlessness in seizing the Labour crown in 1994 and steel in confronting Saddam, Milosevic and the bloodthirsty rebels of Sierra Leone. Yet this war leader shows a total cowardice when it comes to dealing with the Gordon Brown who casts such a shadow over his second and third terms. The result seems clear: that Brown acted as a drag anchor on Blair’s natural instincts for domestic policy reform; but in foreign policy, the one area where Blair was free to do as he liked, his ideology was allowed to run unchecked. The deluded Blair appears not to accept this.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this is one book you can judge by its cover. The title photo of A Journey captures the uneasy Blair essence perfectly. Half smile, half steel. His informal tieless shirt and jacket are black: the colour of both urban cool and of the funeral parlour. He’s youthful and tanned yet has a slight whiff of death about him. Like a postmodern gunslinger, you’re not sure if he’s the good or the bad guy.
The problem is that he likes his mystique, but wants you to think there is no mystery, that the real Tony is easily available to those who want to shell out their £25. Those who do will certainly get the public Blair, his worldview ladled over every incident in this casual, after-dinner speech style. Yet for those who wanted to see more of the private Blair, they may feel they have been gulled once again.
Paul Waugh is Deputy Political Editor, London Evening Standard