Monday, 12 May 2008

Dishing the Dirt


What struck me most about this weekend's rash of memoirs and interviews with political figures of the recent past was how bad it all looks for Tony Blair.

Yes, I know we're supposed to think that these developments are all highly damaging to Brown. But that's only because of the combination of events, bad election results and, not least, a concerted campaign by embittered Blairites to destabilise him. As Nick Robinson notes, this is merely "the latest of a series of very difficult weeks" for the prime minister.

Any memoir that appeared at this juncture would inevitably have been slotted into the prevailing narrative of a hopelessly floundering Brown government, just as prior to 1997 any previously-unknown Conservative MP exposed as having a mistress or an expense account became the latest standard-bearer for Tory Sleaze. Whereas David Cameron has been so successful in neutralising the whole issue that even something as potentially devastating as Derek Conway's family business was skilfully turned into a tableau of the party's rejection of the bad old days, and the even stranger tale of Bob Spink went virtually unreported.

What, after all, did these memoirs tell us? That Blair and Brown did not always get on? Excuse me while I get over my astonishment. That Brown very much wanted Blair to stand aside, and believed that Blair had agreed to do precisely that? The Deal told the already famous story of that lunch at Granita's on prime time TV some years ago. That Gordon has a tendency to brood, and has always been dependent on a small circle of trusted advisers? Next they'll be revealing that his father was a Church of Scotland minister.

Take John Prescott's act of imagined treachery, as he regurgitates (sorry, John) some of the semi-digested power breakfasts on which he gorged himself in more than a decade at the top. From the Sunday Times interview by Lesley White:


“Towards the end, it got more . . . difficult,” Prescott says carefully. “Tony was frustrated that he wasn’t totally running government. They hadn’t lost control of their emotions. They weren’t about to belt each other. I mean, Gordon could go off like a bloody volcano, but Tony doesn’t like the full-frontal approach. It puts him off his tea.”

In 2002, at Dorneywood, Prescott’s official country residence in Buckinghamshire, Brown and Blair had a furious argument about foundation hospitals – then a new concept, which involved loss of Treasury control – while the deputy prime minister tried to play the conciliatory host. “There was no ‘Have a drink. Sherry, beer . . . ?’ None of that. Gordon came in and just launched into Tony.”


How is that damaging to Brown's reputation rather than Blair's? And how did it get spun as a story that Prescott was urging Blair to sack the chancellor, when at other times he was urging Gordon to resign and pursue his vendetta from the back benches? Brown actually comes out quite well from asides like this:

“Gordon was unfairly treated,” he announces categorically. “But from Tony’s point of view, there were things that [Tony] couldn’t get on with, like joining the euro, because he wasn’t getting the cooperation.”

And what of the famous Granita "deal"? Prescott comes down firmly (or so it seems to me) on Brown's side:

Gordon believed Tony had said he’d go halfway into the second term. Tony denied it.

“I don’t think there was any doubt about it: there was an agreement. It had to be halfway into the second period – you couldn’t do a deal by saying if we win three elections you’ll get the job. There was less and less trust between them.”

Indeed, Prescott describes a meeting in his grace-and-favour apartment in Admiralty House in which Blair definitely promised to go. “He said, ‘Look, you know, I am gonna go’ – and then he didn’t do it. So he reneged on his promise. The feeling of not keeping your promises – it doesn’t encourage cooperation.”


The impression given, in published extracts and in interviews, is of John Prescott as a man who feels more than a little aggrieved at both Blair and Brown, for whom he acted as an indispensable go-between but who both seemed more than a little patronising and kept him out of the loop on significant occasions. With Brown, he was made to feel intellectually an inferior. Blair, by contrast, exhibited a subtle but unmistakeable social snobbery. And that was what really hurt:

The shortage of invitations extended to the personal realm: why, Pauline would ask him, were they both so rarely entertained at Chequers (only twice in a decade)?

“I did ask Tony about it a couple of times, you know, but nothing . . . ” Prescott says. “I used to tell Pauline he didn’t do it [entertaining ministers and their wives]. Then it came out that all these celebrities had been entertained there, and cabinet ministers as well.”


If Gordon Brown were more in control of events, or at the very least had advisers with a better feel for media management, Prescott's revelations could have proved a veritable arsenal of matériel for the final destruction of the political memory of Tony Blair.


Then there's Cherie. She bitches a little about Gordon Brown, of course she does. No-one would have expected any less. The world knows that they did not always see eye to eye, and indeed sometimes couldn't bear to maintain eye contact of any sort. (I particularly relished a little tidbit about why Cherie was so taken with Gielgud's Buckinghamshire mansion: she wanted somewhere "fairly near Chequers", presumably so she could glare at Gordon over the South-East countryside.) But what are we to make of her revelations about her own husband?

We learn today that when Cherie suffered a miscarriage Tony's first thought was about how it might impact on his Iraq strategy. According to The Times, she "was astonished by the ruthless manner in which her husband made public within hours the fact that she had lost the baby she was carrying." This is what she says,

Twenty minutes later he called back. The kids were OK, and he hoped I understood, but he had to tell Alastair. Ah, yes. Alastair. I lay there just waiting. Then the phone again: this time the two of them on the line. There were implications in not going on holiday, they said. It was known that we were going to France. It was all to do with Iraq. There had been talk that we might be sending troops in. If we didn't go on holiday, the concern was that it would send out the wrong messages. They had decided that the best thing was to tell the press that I'd had a miscarriage.

I couldn't believe it. There I was, bleeding, and they were talking about what was going to be the line to the press. I put down the receiver and lay there staring at the ceiling, as pain began to grip.
...

When I began to come round from the anaesthetic and was being wheeled out of the operating theatre, who should I see but Gary, one of the detectives. He was looking so distressed that I burst into tears, sobbing and saying, “But I really want my husband”. In fact Tony was there, but because of the security issues it was Gary whom I saw first.

As for Tony, his main emotion appeared to be relief. “You know you felt there was something not quite right, Cherie,” he said. “So it's probably all for the best.” I realise now that he was simply trying to make me feel better; it just came out a bit oddly. Of course, he was right, but I was surprised at just how badly it hit me.


What a bastard. But then we remember how Blair and Campbell dumped her in it over the Bristol flats affair and it all falls into place. The man has a splinter of ice in his heart the size of a small arctic glacier.

After all, his reaction to the birth of Euan in 1984 wasn't that dissimilar:

The practicalities of the physical ordeal I had just endured took time to percolate through, however, as in the afternoon he told me that I had a visitor. I was about to have my photograph taken, he informed me: The Northern Echo - Sedgefield MP, wife and newborn son being the theme. I was given a rubber ring to sit on so that at least I could force a smile. As the guy went about his business, focusing and clicking, all I could think was, an appearance before the House of Lords is a doddle compared with this. I am never going to do it again. My last thoughts as I went to sleep that night were of my husband: I hate this man.


That Gordon Brown has made serious errors of judgement in his economic policy is not in doubt. That he has systematically overspent, has squandered the years of plenty in expensive and bureaucratic initiatives, that his desire to micro-manage has wreaked untold damage, all of this I would proclaim. But that doesn't explain why his authority has so suddenly collapsed. Nor do his character flaws, real and imagined. Partly, it's the natural decay of a government which has had its time. Partly, it is a deliberate campaign of character assassination. The media is bored with Labour. Brown himself has proved to be a less-than-inspiring leader. But that's no reason to pine for Tony Blair. As this weekend's revelations should leave no-one in any doubt, he was far, far worse.

15 comments:

valdemar said...

I wasn't shocked about the miscarriage story, because I've long been convinced that Blair has no conscience in the conventional sense of the term. Had he been born on a sinkhole estate he'd have been a very successful career criminal, and done much less harm to his country. Assuming, of course, that the man's character is more down to nature than nurture. Perhaps if he'd been born somewhere like Meadow Well in North Shields he'd have been a nicer person. After all, he would never have been influenced by Campbell, Mandelson...

WeepingCross said...

Forgive me in advance, as I may be tempted to express my sentiments in a less-than-clerical way.
I suspect that part of the near-euphoria that greeted the accession of Mr Brown was that the country was finally free of that simpering slimeball. In fact, I thought when Labour won in 1997 that had people been given the option of a Labour Party led by John Major that would far better have represented what they really wanted. They had to have the shitbag in order to get rid of the idiots. And Mr Brown, instead of being the sober, diligent chap he appeared to be, turns out actually to be a vacillating hysteric - quite apart from being wedded to exactly the same tick-box-state agenda that characterised the previous PM, which admittedly not very many people care very much about. Hence the collapse; there's no hope of relief from the Labour quarter now. I can't wait until they go, and neither, it seems, can vast numbers of others too.

WeepingCross said...

I've just thought. In Vladimir Solovyev's account of the end of the world, the Antichrist is a man of great secular power, head of a United States of Europe, who becomes passionately interested in the possibilities of religious faith in 'unifying' the human race in the solution of humanity's problems, and organises the unification of world religions, under his own patronage, naturally. If my mind is running along these channels, I think I'd better go to bed.

The Heresiarch said...

Antichrist-spotting is rarely an encouraging sign, Fr WC. Besides, it would surely imply that TB is still as least as important as he imagines himself to be. The chances of him coming back as "president of Europe" are getting slimmer by the hour. And the smart money, AC-wise, is now on Obama ;)

WeepingCross said...

What a relief.

peter bracken said...

"As this weekend's revelations should leave no-one in any doubt, he was far, far worse."

Nonsense.

You're at liberty not to like the man, of course. But an aversion to Blair's character is different from a judgement about his performance as a Prime Minister. In that regard, his departure from office has confirmed one thing only: what a consummate politician he was, commanding of the European stage and dominant at home. In this sense he is sorely missed.

Brown's scandalous, infantile pursuit of the Premiership might have been retrospectively toleraable had he lived up to his self-inflated pretensions. But he hasn't. Quite the opposite. He has shown himself to be out of his depth, and New Labour's ship is likely to sink with him.

The Heresiarch said...

I think there are various aspects to this. One is the shortness of political memories, which never fails to astonish me. When he departed, TB was one of the most unpopular prime ministers on record. He had led the country into a disastrous war. He had presided over a regime that was increasingly associated in the public mind with dodginess of one sort or another. His "consummate" political skill was increasingly being seen as an act. As WC puts it above, people were glad to be rid of the "simpering slimeball".

Now it has all gone wrong for Brown (for reasons not unconnected with his handling of the economy, it is true) much has been forgotten and forgiven. And many in the Labour party now only seem to remember that he won three elections. But what has he left as his legacy? The image of a political magician, an actor, a would-be messiah-figure. There are few lasting achievements. If he had built a solid record, it would not have collapsed so suddenly after he left the stage. Compare Mrs Thatcher. She was kicked out of office, and replaced with what everyone recognised as a second-rate leader. Yet the Conservatives did not collapse within months. Her legacy was a real one.

As for Blair being "sorely missed": WTF? By whom? Labour MPs worried about their seats, perhaps. But even they didn't actually like him.

peter bracken said...

"And many in the Labour party now only seem to remember that he won three elections."

That's a remarkably frivolous remark, as if winning three elections were a stroll in the park. Your memory is a short on the achievements as you suggest the memory of others' is on his failures.

Peace in Northern Ireland was a singular development; his leadership in response to the crisis in Kosovo is casually neglected by his detractors; and the commitment he showed to the health and education services produced tangible, material benefits. In Iraq and Afghanistan he nailed his liberal interventionist colours to the mast and took on proto-fascists for which, frankly, he should be applauded: that sections of the deluded Left can't see beyond their anti-Americanism is their problem, not his.

Sure, there was a gloss to his performance that cloth-capped labourites bridled at, but this is a cheap shot that misses by a mile the substance of the man.

Blair's problem in a sense was that he made his job look easy. Like all great professionals do.

The Heresiarch said...

Blair was a plausible charmer; his "achievements" were all based on hot air. I notice the almost complete lack of domestic policy in your enumeration of his great deeds; even Northern Ireland had many of the characteristics of an international negotiation, and most mainland Brits think of it as a bit foreign anyway.

He rightly gets credit for his role in NI, but it wasn't the one man show the Blairite mythology suggests. John Major played a major role, and if he had still been in office I have no doubt that he would have reached a settlement just as impressive as the Good Friday Agreement. As for Kosovo, I thought it was a mistake at the time and I still think it was a mistake. The province is now dominated by gangsters who have carried out their own ethnic cleansing. Iraq: disaster. Only the Islamists, the Iranians and the oppressors of women have benefited. Afghanistan, sadly, is also looking to be a disaster; even the non-Taliban elements now in power are busy re-erecting primitivist religious laws. In any case, the Afghans now hate western troops as occupiers.

One of Blair's standard lines is "I did what I thought was right". As if it mattered what he thought about it. It's the effects I worry about.

peter bracken said...

It is a peculiar kind of heresy, heresiarch, which preaches conformity: conformity to the former status quo in Iraq (despite the rule of a muderous thug); conformity to the fomer situation in Kosovo (despite the humanitarian disaster Milosevic was bent on precipitating); conformity to the former rule in Afghanistan (despite the grotesque barbarism of the Taliban).

Your invocation to do nothing in a foreign field replete with human rights abusers, torturers and tyrannies is reminiscent of the shabby and self-serving parochialism that caused some of the Left to defend Stalin's brand of communism.

A bit more moral discrimination would add considerably to the undoubted mental agility exhibited in your posts.

The Heresiarch said...

Ouch! You sound just like Oliver Kamm (not a criticism or a compliment, merely an observation).

So Saddam was a tyrant. Mugabe is a tyrant. The Burmese junta are tyrants. The Congo is an ongoing catastrophe that is hardly reported at all. Of course, it's not possible to intervene everywhere; so if you're going to intervene anywhere it makes sense to intervene somewhere your intervention actually stands a chance of making things better. Rather than worse.

Saddam Hussein, it is now obvious to all but diehard Blair-Bush apologists, was the lesser of two (or more) evils. His tyranny was at least a sort of order. He was a secular dictator. The women in Basra who are too scared to go out unaccompanied have no reason to be grateful for the moral purity that allegedly informed Blair's brand of international grandstanding. Nor have the women who have been murdered by the religious militias to whom Britain handed over control of the city.

As for Afghanistan, I think the Taliban were an unmitigated horror. But as Gerry Adams said of the IRA, they haven't gone away, you know. And even their western-backed opponents don't seem much better, do they? The young journalist under sentence of death for downloading material from the internet in favour of women's rights: is he a victim of the Taliban? No - of the regimen that Western powers have established. Nice going.

You seem to be saying - forgive me if I'm wrong - that Blair's desire to "do the right thing" somehow excuses his repeated doing of the wrong thing, the disastrous thing, the counterproductive thing.

Edwin said...

Bush went to war against Saddam Hussein because SH had planned to kill Bush senior: it was, if you like, an 'honour war' (copyright OldBagpuss). But why Blair backed Bush's war I know not nor I think does anyone really. Blair liked taking the UK to war: but this war, as the sorely missed Robin Cook said, was mad.

There was a stunning two-frame cartoon in Private Eye recently, the first showing the British arriving in Basra while being watched by assorted women, some in headscarves, some not; the second frame shows the same women watching the British leave - the women are now in full binliner.

Blair's legacy is the Iraqi woman who said that under Saddam Hussein she could be killed for having an opinion; now she can be killed for having an opinion and for wearing lipstick.

BlairSupporter said...

Excellent comments by peter bracken.

"Blair's problem in a sense was that he made his job look easy. Like all great professionals do."

It really evades all common sense to state that Blair was worse than Brown. Blair was and is a singularly astute politician, completely mastering all the requirements of the post. He moved his party and the country as far as he could given the limitations of vision and lack of understanding of real cause and effect which surrounded him and the rest of us via the press in this country.

Iraq was, in fact, right. And will be seen to be in future years.

The insurgents killing of their own without compunction would still have been the case if we and the Americans had walked away. And at some time in the future, they'd have been killing their own again - only we might not have noticed or cared, because we'd have passed by on the other side.

Does anyone now really believe these Iranian backed groups suddenly appeared out of nowhere when Bush went into Iraq? Their agenda, though disparate, is long-standing and has yet to be understood by the west. "We" are not the bad guys here.

Thank the powers that be for such as Blair.

Btw, we should remember that hormones invariably affect a woman's emotions when she has just given birth. It's normal to want you and your baby to be the only thing worthy of attention at this time. Sadly, it's not always possible, if your husband's the PM and there are war rumours doing the paper rounds!

Campbell - and I imagine it was him rather than Blair - was right. If Mrs Blair's miscarriage was going to be announced anyway, just as well to be sooner rather than later, so avoiding fueling more press tittle-tattle.

And which woman hasn't hated her husband after - and more particularly during - birth?

Doesn't mean she doesn't love him. Strange things, women.

peter bracken said...

I shan't bedevil you further, heresiarch(promise)...except to say your last reply is the most obtuse of the three.

I suspect that you well know that it is not possible to forecast where "intervention actually stands a chance of making things better." So, in effect, your ostensible dose of commonsense reverts to a theme of yours: inaction (perhaps you should re-lable your blog thus!)

Purity of motive is not Blair's petard, by the way; it is the common lament of his critics, who argue that Iraq is not about humantarian issues but about strategic threats to the West's dependency on oil. FWIW, I think it is that too, but an alignment of national interests and moral imperatives not only seems unexceptionable to me, it seems doubly urgent that we should act. Needless to say, I would not have supported the war in Iraq if only the former issue had prevailed.

I enjoy reading your blog. Your writing is stimulating and erudite (if at times misguided) and your range embraces isssues that matter. Your views deserve a wider audience - as a counterpoint to Kamm, perhaps?

Peter

The Heresiarch said...

I find your "promise" that you won't bedevil me further very disappointing, Peter. Run out of arguments, have you? I look forward to diagreeing with you (or even agreeing) on many future occasions. If you have a thought, leave a comment.