30 Days by Peter Stothard

The trivial pursuits of Blair's war reporter
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Mongol conquerors took Persian scribes to write up their victories, subtle men who developed an irony that both praised and subverted their masters. Tony Blair has preferred Sir Peter Stothard, the former editor of The Times, and gained a more starry-eyed jog through what the subtitle accurately calls "a month behind the scenes of Blair's war".

Britain's boyish war leader would have been better off with a Persian scribe, with or without irony. This is a book notable for the absence of revelation on a most extraordinary piece of history: a war in which the fighting went far better than expected, and the politics far worse.

What made Blair so certain he could carry a second resolution that the Americans didn't want and the French begged him not to pursue? Did he really believe that a peaceful solution was possible? What of the astonishing story that he would have resigned if he had not gained a majority of Labour MPs in the final vote, when to have quit on the edge of war with an overall Commons majority would have been an abnegation of duty?

Anyone seeking an answer to these and other questions will not find them here. They are never asked. Instead, we plod through in the now-standard cinema vérité style: who wore what, when, and where their offices are positioned in No 10. We learn a lot about Blair's children's toys, the colour of his ties, and the names of his inner staff. Of his motivation, or the driving forces of events, we learn nothing.

It's not all the fault of Stothard. He was excluded from the crucial meetings and sworn to secrecy on the most delicate conversations. There are still odd insights: such as that Blair's favourite exclamation is "crikey", a word I always thought limited to childhood comics. Stothard confirms the crucial importance, and chemistry with the leader, of Alastair Campbell. And out of it all does emerge a picture of a Prime Minister given to few self- doubts, who loves the rhythm of conversation and decision-making at the centre of events.

What the book fatally lacks is the feline fascination with the foibles and failings of its subjects that makes the Georgian political memoir such a pleasure. Sir Peter is not Horace Walpole, nor Charles Greville. Curiously, for a man who spent so long surviving the court of Rupert Murdoch, he seems to have no instinct for the ploys, rivalry and sheer bitchiness that characterise a close court such as Blair's.

More surprisingly, he lacks any sense of inquiry. The pursuit of themes and questions that makes a book such as Bob Woodward's Bush at War (on the Afghan conflict) doesn't seem to be there. Which perhaps answers one of the nagging puzzles of this brief book. Why did Tony Blair seek a scribe in the first place? Was it vanity? Was it a favour to a Murdoch paper or a compensation prize for a man ruthlessly deprived of his tenure at The Times before he could celebrate a 10-year stint? Whatever, if Blair feared letting a journalist into the inner sanctum, he need not have worried. He didn't get one.