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Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered by Jon Davis and John Rentoul

John Rentoul has for many years performed, often single-handedly, the provocative task of giving a fair hearing to Tony Blair. As Jon Davis, his co-author, writes in the Prologue to this book, Rentoul became “the go-to person for a media requiring balance”, once familiarity and the invasion in 2003 of Iraq had bred contempt of the then Prime Minister: “Dislike of Blair, and demand for John, grew and grew.”

Rentoul enjoys teasing those of us who have become totally fed up with Blair, and showing us how uncharitable and unreasonable we have become, and he does so from a position of knowledge. In 1995, the year after Blair became Labour leader, Rentoul brought out his first biography of him, followed in 2001 by Tony Blair: Prime Minister, a work of 600 pages.

This led in time to an academic post, something of which those of us who have devoted ourselves to the study of such frivolous and essentially marginal figures as Boris Johnson can only dream.

Davis and Rentoul teach a course on the Blair Government at King’s College, London, where they delight in calling in key witnesses and hearing their testimony about what really happened in those years.

This book is one of the fruits of that research. It is a rich quarry of materials, which historians and students of government will mine with delight.

Nor is everything in the book favourable to Blair and the Blairites. Here is Sir Richard Mottram, a senior civil servant, on Jonathan Powell, who wished the British system of government to become “more Napoleonic”, and who after ten years as Blair’s Chief of Staff wrote a book called The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World:

“If you write a book about Machiavelli and you fancy yourself as being Napoleonic you shouldn’t have the Blair story, the story of a man who’s incapable of firing his finance director.”

The finance director was Gordon Brown, and Davis and Rentoul tell us quite a bit about Blair’s shilly-shallying over whether or not to sack him, a step he could never quite steel himself to take.

And here is Anji Hunter talking at King’s in 2017 about her discovery in 1997, after three or four months in government, that she was being paid about half as much as Powell and Alastair Campbell, with whom she had been on a level of equality as an adviser to Blair in opposition, added to which they had been given the right by Order in Council to “boss civil servants about”.

Hunter demands equal treatment, at least as far as the money is concerned, and after “a lot of hassle” she gets it:

“I had Tony’s support in that. ‘Of course she should have more money. How could you have done this, guys?’ It was slightly laddish, because Alastair is a lad, a sort of football laddo. He is a little bit misogynist, a tiny bit. You can say this to him. He and I are really good pals.”

Davis and Rentoul are impressed by Campbell:

“His Diaries are the most wonderful primary resource for the historian. The millions of words are copious, yet concise in articulation, passionate and wide-ranging, and in effect chronicle the most extensive day-by-day downloading of a prime minister’s brain ever.”

This is wildly over-the-top. There were surely many parts of Blair’s brain which he declined to allow Campbell to download. Campbell is a very gifted tabloid journalist. He gets the story, but there are extensive tracts of Blair’s mind – the Christianity, for example – which would escape his reductive intelligence, and which Blair would know it was quite fruitless and indeed embarrassing to share with him.

The greatest difficulty with a book of this kind is how to create a narrative, once you have decided not to make it a biography. Even if you go for the biographical approach, you will almost certainly find yourself forced to treat some of the record in government thematically, in order to avoid jumping about from subject to subject.

Davis says at the start, “the analytical framework we were using kept moving”. In the end, they decide

“we would simply work on providing a counterbalance to the vast array of negativity that began around Blair before he even became prime minister, gathered pace throughout his incumbency, and then consumed almost all before it in the years after his retirement. We would demonstrate that so much of the criticism was hyperbolic, unfounded or simply wrong-headed by way of our research.”

The book is organised into five chapters, which students of the themes covered will find invaluable:

1. The Blair-Brown Coalition

2. Sofa

3. Spin, Spads, and Sir Humphreys

4. The Treasury: The Brown-Balls Partnership

5. The Iraq War

This last provides the obvious reason why Blair became unpopular. The main role of the Prime Minister (or so I came to think while writing brief lives of all 54 of them) is to take the blame.

In the 18th century, Lord North took the blame on behalf of George III for losing the American colonies. In the 20th century, Neville Chamberlain took the blame on behalf of the people for failing to cope with Hitler.

North and Chamberlain had many admirable qualities, but these count for nothing as far as their reputations are concerned. The fact that most people supported their policies is irrelevant, and so in this connection are the learned works by historians seeking to correct an evident injustice.

The same fate has befallen Blair. Someone had to take the blame for what went wrong in Iraq, and the Prime Minister was the obvious candidate.

Davis and Rentoul do not seem to understand that by being so self-important and self-righteous, Blair tightened the knots in the cords which already held him prisoner.

Blair wanted to take personal credit for everything which went well under his leadership. The landslide victory of 1997 was, he and his courtiers implied, thanks in large part to him. Yet as Archie Brown observes in The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, published in 2014:

“The landslide – an overall Labour majority of 179 – itself owed much to an electoral system which translates a fairly modest percentage increase in popular votes into a disproportionately great advantage in seats. Labour’s share of the popular vote was lower in 1997 than in all elections between 1945 and 1966, including those which Labour lost. The Conservatives, however, fared catastrophically. They had their lowest share of the vote of the century, as well as their worst result since 1906 in terms of seats. They had become so unpopular that any Labour leader who did not ‘self-destruct’ would have led the party to an overall majority of well over a hundred seats in the House of Commons. Bartle and Crewe calculate that had Major and Blair ‘been evaluated equally favourably, Labour’s majority would have been cut from 11.9 to 11.0 points, altering the outcome in just four seats’.”

Davis and Rentoul buy into the myth of the strong leader: “Tony Blair was the political colossus in Britain for thirteen years after he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994.”

They add, on page 112, that “Blair, formidable on his own, was unstoppable with Campbell”, while on page 120 they assert that “the New Labour influx” of special advisers “was the strongest ever outside wartime”.

Campbell, Powell, Hunter, David Miliband, Andrew Adonis, Sally Morgan, Geoff Mulgan, Michael Barber, Ed Balls (who features strongly in this book) and Ed Miliband are listed in support of this contention.

It is a strong line-up, but none of these individuals had any incentive, when welcomed to King’s College, to downplay his or her contribution to the achievements of the Blair years.

And it would surely be possible to compile a list of advisers who were at least as gifted, and in some cases more original, who worked for Margaret Thatcher.

In his early years as leader, Blair had a kind of self-deprecating charm which rendered his blowing of his own trumpet more acceptable.

But after Iraq, his manner became insufferable. For he not only wished to think of himself as a fine fellow. He also wished to use his considerable skills as a debater to oblige the rest of us to think of him as a fine fellow, who had invariably acted in good faith, and had done many great things.

So when he visited the authors’ class at Queen Mary (which accommodated the project until it moved to King’s) in 2011, he told the students:

“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.”

Here is Blair the indispensable leader who keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs, the hero of the hour, indeed the hero of every hour, for government is conducted at a frenetic pace and the saviour has to rush to wherever the fighting is fiercest, so he can turn the tide and feed yet another triumph to the feral beasts of the 24-hour media, who will otherwise rend him limb from limb,

Mottram says of Blair and his court:

“they held their colleagues in contempt, mainly, largely, and they had a very low opinion about a government machine about which they knew nothing… Years later they still never learned this lesson that the most important thing you do is pick  the people because they didn’t think they were going to work through loads of other people, they thought they were going to do it all themselves…”

Davis and Rentoul consider this accusation unjust, and provide a large volume of evidence which tends in the other direction.

But by taking Blair at his own vainglorious estimate of himself, they help, unintentionally, to show him emerging as a lonely, even tragic figure, who becomes unbearable, because of his moral vanity, to listen to even when he is telling the truth.

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