So that explains it: Tony Blair was pissed half the time. One of the most extraordinary revelations in the former PM’s foray into confessional literature, “A Journey”, is that he was, by many medical definitions, a problem drinker. A stiff G and T (3 units) and up to half bottle of wine (5 units) each night put the PM way over the government’s safe limit of 21 units a week. Did it addle his brain? make him careless? affect his judgement? Actually, I doubt it. By the standards of his predecessors in Number Ten, notably Winston Churchill who began his day with a large Scotch, had a bottle of Pol Roger champagne for lunch and kept himself liberally topped up throughout the day, Blair’s imbibing was purely recreational. However, it is a curious thing to highlight in a political memoir.
But then, as its title suggests, “A Journey” is a very modern memoir – aimed at a media culture of confessional womens magazines and celebrity journalism. What better way to get noticed, and divert attention from the real issues – like Iraq – than to get onto the therapy couch and admit to having a little bit of a drink problem – just like countless middle class, middle aged men and women. Just like his hero George W. Bush, in fact – though Dubya gave up the bottle after he found God. Tony lied too – and was “manipulative”, he tells us. But always in a good way.Amd of course he never felt comfortable in Scotland because it was Gordon country.In fact, this whole political autobiography with its relentless focus on the dysfunctional relationship with Gordon Brown, is a little like one of those ‘misery lit’ volumes that fill the book shelves in supermarkets. “Behind Closed Doors” “Don’t Tell Mummy”. “Not Again,Gordon, Please” This is a political history with the prime minister as victim. Ruthlessly bullied and belittled by a Chancellor whom Blair describes as “a strange guy…weird…zero emotional intelligence…maddening”. There was Tony sitting in his den in Number Ten, in constant fear of another late night ‘visit’ from mad Gordon, who might make him do things he didn’t want to do. Tony Blair wasn’t really prime minister, surrounded by countless minders, advisers and civil servants – he was actually a captive of Gordon, the Josef Fritzl of New Labour.
As for the failures of his administration, it was all Gordon’s fault for being so beastly. Brown blocked Tony’s attempt to ‘modernise’ Britain by reinventing Margaret Thatcher’s market reforms to the health service, trying to dismantle comprehensive education in England and introducing 90 day detention without charge. Brown resisted university tuition fees – on the not unreasonable ground that Labour’s election manifesto had promised not to introduce them. No matter – Gordon was “simply impossible to work with”, and in the end Blair stopped answering the phone from his own Chancellor. Note that the claim here is not that Brown argued vehemently against these public sector reforms and essentially won the day – rather that he used psychological and emotional obstructionism, and ultimately blackmail, to defy the PM.
For, the final astonishing revelation in in the book is that, in 2006, Brown threatened to launch a Labour investigation into the cash-for-honours scandal if Blair didn’t back down on his pension reforms. Blair didn’t, and Brown went ahead – it is implied – and authorised Jack Dromey, the Labour Executive chair, to launch his public attack on Number Ten’s practice of soliciting secret loans from businessmen in exchange for seats in the House of Lords. That led to a lengthy police investigation and the arrest of Lord Levy, Blair’s chief fund-raiser. This really is off the scale. Blackmail, even when no money is involved, is a criminal offence – though it would be very difficult to get a conviction for a politician since they’re all assumed to be at it. Nevertheless, this is an accusation too far and demands a response from Gordon Brown – who surely cannot remain silent for long.
If Brown let’s all this stand, he will go down in political history, not as an immensely able if headstrong and determined politician, but as a devious and malign presence in government who was on the verge of clinical insanity. At the very least he stands accused of putting his own personal ambition above the interest of his party and the country. I hold no brief for the former Chancellor, but it’s hard not to see this book part of a systematic attempt to destroy Gordon Brown’s political reputation and to influence the choice of his successor. Blair’s bombshell was dropped on the very day that voting papers were issued for the Labour leadership election.
There’s a pattern here. Last spring, Andrew Rawnsley painted a picture of a ranting, raging, bullying Gordon Brown in his book “The End of the Party” which relied heavily on briefings from Number Ten. Then Peter Mandelson ignited the summertime book market with his “The Third Man”, a character assassination of Brown as “mad, bad and dangerous”. Now, on the eve of the Labour conference Tony Blair has given his devastating account of the former Chancellor’s psychological flaws, and has thrown in the charge of blackmail. Anyone who thought that the Blairites were history hasn’t been keeping up. This book is a warning to Labour not to mess with the Blair legacy by electing Ed Miliband as leader rather than David Miliband, Blair’s protégé
But if you think about it, Blair’s account actually does serious damage to his own authority and reputation. Prime ministers, if they’re any good, are supposed to be in command of their governments, exercise authority, dispense patronage. You never heard Margaret Thatcher claim she was bullied and blackmailed by her own ministers. It leaves Blair looking like a very weak leader indeed who allowed a rival to block his key reforms.
Regrets? He has a few, but then again, Blair only admits that he ”got it wrong” over the ban fox hunting. This is pure public relations: to admit one relatively insignificant failure in order to divert attention to greater issues. Not a hint of apology over launching an illegal war, on the basis of distorted intelligence, that killed hundreds of thousands of people and generated, as MI6 now admits, a terrorist backlash against the West. But in Tony’s confessional universe, there’s no need to say sorry because it was the Right Thing To Do. Meanwhile, Gordon emerges as the brutal emotional abuser. I’m surprised Blair didn’t book into his nearest refuge for battered prime ministers instead of hitting the bottle.