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Politics New Labour

“Broken Vows” by Tom Bower. A hatchet job so lethal you start feel sympathy for Tony Blair.

TONY Blair used to complain about the “feral beasts” in the tabloid press. Now, he’d be forgiven for complaining about feral historians, if this first full-scale political biography is to be taken as a benchmark. Tom Bower paints a picture of an intellectually and morally deficient politician with little grasp of statecraft who was obsessed by personal enrichment.

He all but accuses Blair of using his charitable works as a front for his financial dealings, often with dictators like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. His account of Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendy Deng, is eye-popping and must have given Faber’s libel lawyers a run for their money.

The picture is so dire, indeed, that you almost find yourself sympathising with the former Labour prime minister. He couldn’t have been that bad could he? What about the investment in the health service, the national minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, freedom of information, the Northern Ireland peace process, devolution?

But as Bower tells it, Blair either regretted these achievements – he quotes the former PM as saying that the Freedom of Information Act was his “stupidest and most naive” measure – or simply failed. The English health service was left a mess, despite Labour tripling its budget. Similar investment in education, Bower claims, delivered no increase in standards.

Bower also accuses Tony Blair of irresponsibly sponsoring mass immigration for purposes of social engineering. If this all sounds a bit like the Daily Mail, that’s not surprising. This book has been serialised therein and Bower writes very much in the style of that particular tabloid. It reads like character assassination rather than scholarship.

Nor is there any attempt to give a balanced appraisal of those who served under Tony Blair. The late Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, is described as “a snake”. Gordon Brown is a “resentful Scot” with “psychological flaws” and “tormented relationships with women”.

Other members of the New Labour circle get similar rough treatment. The former Trade and Industry Secretary was over-promoted, “resentful” and “misled parliament over Railtrack”. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, was “boorish”, David Blunket a bully.

Tom Bower insists that he is a Labour voter himself and that he even supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though he now presents the war as a disaster based on Blair’s incompetence and vanity. He wanted to “save the world” by engaging in military adventures that employed “force for good”. Quoting interviews with civil servants and senior military figures, Bower says Blair systematically misled the Cabinet and distorted intelligence to justify a rush to war.

This is a hatchet job, but Bower uses a very sharp axe. Broken Vows is meticulously researched, especially on the run up to the Iraq War and its chaotic aftermath.  However we learn little about Tony Blair that is really new.No-one seriously denies today that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was “sexed up”.

Nor will any dedicated reader of the UK press fail to recognise the picture painted of Cherie Blair: a grasping, weak and vain woman who constantly complains of not being allowed a private jet. Again, you feel that this successful human rights barrister and LSE governor must have some positive qualities. But according to Bower she seems only interested in holidays and buying expensive houses – a kind of Islington Imelda Marcos.

Tony Blair built a £25m property empire within two years of his departure from Number 10, including a country house in Buckinghamshire, a town house in Connaught Square, a London mews house and a block of flats in Manchester. You wonder how anyone could have amassed such wealth so quickly. As former PM, Tony Blair received a pension of only £63,468.

Bower fills in the dots. Blair received £4m for his memoirs, A Journey. Upon retiring from Westminster he also walked into a £3m per annum job with the Wall Street bank, JP Morgan. Blair also charges £250,000 for his speeches plus £40,000 expenses. But most of his wealth seems to come from advising governments, often African dictators. He was thick as thieves with Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, according to Bower, and visited him six times after he stood down as PM, generally with representatives of BP and JP Morgan at his side.

Bower claims that Blair promised Gaddafi that he would try to secure the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, in 2009. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, did indeed release al Megrahi that year, though there was never any mention of Tony Blair being involved.

You simply ask yourself: why? How could a Labour prime minister be so crass, so unconcerned about his reputation? No doubt Blair would argue that he needed to raise large sums of money to finance his charitable work. But again, the way Bower tells it, Blair’s charitable endeavours through his Faith Foundation and his Africa Governance Initiative were always riddled with conflicts of interest.

Tony Blair was a brilliant politician and a gifted communicator. He was Labour’s most successful leader and won three General Elections. But if Tom Bower is right, his obsession with personal enrichment, even more than the Iraq War, is likely to provide his tawdry epitaph. “The prime minister’s judgement,” says Bower, “appeared permanently warped by money.”

From Herald 13/3/16

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