Former Times journalist Nick Wood was a media adviser to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. In this article he reflects on tonight’s confirmation that Tony Blair will quit tomorrow.
Tony Blair presented the Conservative Party with a strategic dilemma. As my old friend Rick Nye, former research director at Conservative Central Office, used to remark, "Did we think Blair was weak or did we think he was wicked?"
It was a question we never satisfactorily answered. Going back to the Tory election campaign of 1997, John Major took the line that Blair was wicked rather than weak. The Demon Eyes poster was predicated on the argument that behind the Labour leader’s toothy smile lurked a closet socialist. His was the smile on the face of the left-wing tiger. Or as Blair put it himself a year after becoming Prime Minister, "from Bambi to Stalin in a single year".
I recall one example of Blair’s ability to ice an ugly cake. In my days as as a Times journalist, I saw his henchman Alastair Campbell brutally elbow aside a fellow hack as a beaming Blair stride into yet another choreographed meet-the-people event. It was the kind of blow that would have had Jose Mourinho crying foul had it been perpetrated by a rival player. But Blair affected not to see the carnage around him as he beamed angelically at the crowd.
Yet history’s verdict will be more mixed. Blair could be weak, and wicked, and much more besides. He was weak in the sense that he failed to deliver the agenda to which he once attached so much rhetorical value. He did not join the euro, he did not remake Britain’s suspicious relations with the European Union, he did not make the Labour Party love Peter Mandelson, he did not reform the welfare state, he did not save the NHS, he did not transform state education. Instead, rather as he turned a blind eye to Campbell’s brutality, so he looked the other way as Gordon Brown racked up taxes, spending and, above all, the payroll vote – the army of state employees who would need their heads examining if they anything but vote Labour.
May be there was also an element of wickedness here. May be Blair really approved of Brown’s 100 stealth taxes and the spending spree that now has the Government spending well over £1 billion a day of our money. May be he really was a socialist, determined to expand the power and reach of the state until it bosses us all from dawn to dusk.
For all that many Tories were comfortable with Blair. He polished off Labour’s rough edges and succeeded in persuading them to trade outmoded dogma for power. Many Tories were content with what they saw as Blair’s Faustian pact with his party. Labour folk were less so.
The Iraq war changed all that. In the eyes of right-wing, pro-American Conservatives (a dwindling band admittedly), Blair eventually did something right, important and difficult. He preserved the strategic alliance with the USA. He rid the world of a nasty dictator, who if left in place would have caused far more mayhem in Iraq and beyond than the turmoil that has engulfed that country for the last four years.
The Left took against him and will never forgive him. The Right were glad of him because in his political autumn he stopped looking the other way and did his own dirty work (rather too dirty in the case of the dodgy dossiers and poor Dr Kelly). At last he stood for something rather than charming TV audiences.
Blair was the ultimate snake oil salesman, the best political presenter since the war. His domestic agenda was pretty vacuous and amounted to little. But his grasp of geopolitics was far sounder. History will be kinder to him than many might suspect today.