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Blair decoded

The Independent, September 2nd 2010

What the Blair memoirs tell us about the Prime Minister as a man

“There have been plenty of accounts… of the history of my 10 years as Prime Minister,” writes Tony Blair. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” So what sort of human being emerges from the 700-odd pages of this book?

The most striking facet is his candour. I have read many a prime ministerial memoir and none of the other authors has been as self-deprecating, as willing to admit mistakes and to tell jokes against themselves. The Blair memoir is full of phrases such as, “only a complete ingenu or total clot – i.e. me…” and “I did lack courage”. You can hardly imagine Margaret Thatcher writing that.

Blair spares himself little. In describing his feelings about wanting to stand down before his third election, he writes: “I had a nagging doubt that part of it was just cowardice; part of it was wanting to be free of the burden, of the pain it brings, of the sometimes near-intolerable weight of responsibility. Did I want to go for unselfish reasons, or for reasons that were in fact utterly selfish?” And he has no qualms about telling stories against himself.There is a hilarious account of the technophobic Prime Minister meeting Bill Gates: “I got all my terminology muddled up and, to the horror of David Miliband and the young “beautiful people” in the office, asked Bill how his mainframe was or something like that – a question that produced consternation mixed with giggling from the staff, and a curious gulping sound from Bill.”

The account of Millennium night had me laughing out loud, particularly his growing dread that one of the trapeze artists, who had no safety nets, would crash to the ground and flatten the Queen. A close second is the story of John Prescott storming into the Cabinet room shouting, “Where’s fooking Menzies?” and going on his hands and knees to search under the Cabinet table, convinced that Ming Campbell had been spirited in as part of an underhand attempt to realign the Left.

The book will infuriate Blair’s critics, not least because of his insistence, still, that he was right about Iraq. To those who distrust him it will provide ammunition, for he acknowledges his own slipperiness. In the Northern Ireland negotiations, he admits to “stretching the truth, I fear, on occasions past breaking point”, a technique he then describes as part of being “nimble, flexible and innovative”. Hmm… And he declares that “politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done”.

But his political insights and analysis are as acute as ever. In the miasma of irrational hate that surrounds Blair, it is easily forgotten what a clever politician he was. He is also brimming with emotional intelligence – what a contrast to his successor – and paints delicious pen portraits of many of the people he comes across.

Mostly, though, what comes across is his charm. It is precisely his self-awareness, his willingness to admit his faults, that is endearing in a modern politician. Of Princess Diana, he writes, “We were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them.” And on convincing Gordon Brown not to stand against him in 1994: “I consciously exerted every last impulse of charm and affection, not just persuading but wooing.”

Of course, admitting that you are manipulative is, in its own way, manipulative. Readers will either find it refreshing or ghastly. And whether they choose to allow themselves to be charmed by the candour or repelled by it will surely depend on how they felt about Blair the man in the first place.

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