By Roland Watson
TONY Blair admires George W. Bush more than almost any other politician in the world and uses his memoir, A Journey, to give a qualified endorsement of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba and the way in which Afghan and Iraqi detainees have been treated.
He presents Bill Clinton, who was in office in 1997, as a longstanding soulmate whose flings arose “from a curiosity in people”.
He is critical of Barack Obama’s softer approach towards radical Islam, worrying the US President is taking the easy option by talking about partnerships.
For the US edition of the book, Blair has written a special introduction; a six-page hymn to the US, its values and its leaders.
“America’s burden is that it wants to be loved, but knows it can’t be,” he writes. He says its leadership is respected by the rest of the world even if it is “sometimes actively opposed”, and that Obama “is a man with steel in every part of him”.
He had urged Brown to stand, fearing that Smith would prove too timid to make Labour electable, but Brown remained noncommital and failed to tell Blair he had agreed to become Smith’s shadow chancellor.
“I knew in my bones it was a mistake,” Blair writes.
“From that moment, I think I detached a little bit from Gordon; just a fraction, imperceptible to the eye of the observer, unaccompanied by any expressions of distance or even by any diminishing of affection.
“It was a detachment small in space, but definitive in consequence. The seed was sown of my future insistence that I should be leader, not him.”
So begins the unravelling of the relationship that defined New Labour, two years before the concept was born.
At times, Blair writes in awe of Brown’s abilities, endearingly about his eccentricities and excitedly at the political music they once made together.
“Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync. When others were present, we felt the pace and power diminish until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to lovemaking but disturbed by old friends dropping round, we would try to bustle them out.”
But Blair never doubts he was right to muscle Brown aside after Smith’s death, about which he had a premonition of sorts and had mentally prepared himself. “The truth is I was out in front taking risks, and this was a time for risk-takers. I spotted that; he didn’t.”
But Blair acknowledges he made mistakes at critical points in his dealing with Brown. When Smith died in 1994, Blair had yet to share his leadership ambition with his friend. “I felt I had been disingenuous with him, which in the light of later events was a mistake.”
Between 1992 and 1994, Brown would seek assurances of Blair’s future support, and received them.
“Why not? I knew enough of him to know that had I withdrawn that assurance, we would have been doing battle. And anyway, it might never have happened. Smith may have become prime minister.”
Although there was never a formal deal, there was, Blair says, an understanding of mutual interest: that Brown would inherit the crown. Blair now regrets even that.
“Looking back, I was too eager to persuade and too ready to placate. The truth is I couldn’t guarantee it; and it was irresponsible to suggest or imply I could. Neither of us should have tried to predict the future.”
Similarly, when Brown was pressing him in 2003 for a departure date, Blair agreed to go before the 2005 election, with the proviso of Brown’s unconditional support in the meantime.
Three years later, Brown, “in venomous mood”, attempted to blackmail Blair. He would publicly call for an inquiry into the cash-for-honours affair if Blair did not back down in a row over pensions. Blair was stunned.
“The temperature, already well below freezing point, went arctic.”
Elsewhere in the book, Blair says of Bush: “One of the most ludicrous caricatures of George is that he was a dumb idiot who stumbled into the presidency.
“No one stumbles into that job, and the history of presidential campaigns is littered with the political corpses of those who were supposed to be brilliant but who nonetheless failed because brilliance is not enough.”
His awe of Bush is best seen in a visit to the White House 10 days after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He recalls how his ally was unbelievably calm. Guantanamo Bay was, Blair says, understandable and justifiable. Those taken as prisoners of war in Afghanistan had to be treated unconventionally because they could not be proved guilty in a “proper” court of law but “would be a threat if released”.
Blair asks himself every day whether he would have made the same decision over Iraq had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction and the invasion would lead to six years of war.
“The aftermath was more bloody, more awful, more terrifying than anyone could have imagined. I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that subsequently unfolded.”
Blair discloses far more about his dealings with the Queen than any previous prime minister. He writes of their strained discussions after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; and, on a lighter note, what happened at their first audience when he became prime minister. As he was preparing for the kissing hands ceremony, an official told him: “You don’t actually kiss the Queen’s hands in the ceremony of kissing hands. You brush them gently with your lips.”
Blair suggests that although Diana was too smart to voice support for a political party she and New Labour were a “perfect fit”. He clearly felt an empathy with Diana, saying “we were both, in our own ways, manipulators”.
Blair admits for the first time that his main vice was drinking. He suggests that by 2005 when Brown was trying to shunt him out of Downing Street he had started to rely on alcohol.
“By the standards of days gone by, I was not even remotely a (heavy drinker), and I couldn’t do lunchtime drinking except on Christmas Day. I was definitely at the outer limit. Stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it.
“So not excessively excessive. I had a limit. But I was aware it had become a prop.”