A Journey, By Tony Blair

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The Independent Culture

One of the most striking things I heard about Tony Blair as I was writing my biography of him was from John Lloyd, a comrade in arms of Blair's in the Hackney South Labour Party and my former editor at the New Statesman. I said that I thought it was one of Blair's great strengths that, not only did he seem "normal", but he actually was. "I don't think he is normal," said Lloyd. "He doesn't think he is normal. He thinks he is exceptional."

It is not surprising that for many democratic politicians, the appearance of normality is part of the toolkit of successful vote-gathering. The vanity is a necessary part of the abnormality that drives them to put themselves up on stage and to want to sit in the big chair.

Barack Obama has it too, the easy surface modesty and use of normal language, but there are flashes of the arrogance beneath the veneer. One recent book about him recounts his response to a fellow politician, congratulating him on a speech: "I know I've got a gift."

Blair knew he had the gift too. And what makes his memoir so absorbing, as it swings from clever phrase-making and thoughtful contemporary history to wince-inducing self-analysis, is that he is the first of a generation of politicians to conduct their craft as if observing themselves from an amused and admiring distance – and then to write about it. No recent politician has examined his own motives and psychology quite so candidly – and at times embarrassingly – except perhaps Obama, who did it largely before he got to sit in the big chair. Blair's book feels as if it has been influenced by Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, which contains an awful lot of postmodern Hamlet-ish soliloquising about what he wanted to do with his life and how totally brilliant he was.

Blair's account of how he came to realise that he was what the party and the country needed (and Gordon Brown wasn't) in the 1992-93 period is unusual. He promises in the introduction a different sort of history, about "what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history", and he delivers. Whether that is actually what we want to know is another matter.

He could see his opportunity to "take hold" of the Labour Party, "like I suppose someone in business spots the next great opportunity, or an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius". "It is an extraordinary feeling, in the sense that you feel you can achieve something beyond the ordinary... Maybe you won't do it, but you know at that time, in those circumstances, with those conditions, it can be done... I can see it and I can do it."

There is plenty more of that self-conscious description of himself as "a leader", about which I expect some critics to be quite snooty. At one point he recounts a conversation with his aides in which he tells them, "That is why I'm leader and you're not". Yet the self-belief that veered into un-English arrogance was always intrinsic to Blair's political genius.

There is a snobbishness about how he isn't a proper intellectual: shallow, a show pony, and all the rest of it. But he got politics right, with 10 years of successful government, whereas the intellectual Gordon Brown got it wrong and, despite making the right judgement about the economic crisis, crashed the car after three years in which little else was achieved.

Blair did have an unusual power: a sort of sixth sense like echolocation, an instinct for when to take risks, what would work, what wouldn't and how the public would react. It is revelatory to see what that looks like from the inside, right down to the detail about his relationship with alcohol that is the one real surprise of the book – a confessional style not to everyone's taste, but it had an authenticity, even a "normality", about it.

More importantly, the book also delivers on the other side of the promise of openness, offering a more honest account of his calculations in politics than I was expecting. The central question for the historian approaching this book is: why did he put up with such nonsense from Gordon Brown for so long? It is one of the fundamental criticisms of his time as Prime Minister that he allowed his Chancellor to obstruct and threaten him, and yet he shied away from confrontation and ended up endorsing him as his successor, knowing that he was likely to lead the party to defeat.

There is little new in Blair's account of the relationship, and most of his reasons for tolerating Brown's "maddening" behaviour could be deduced, but it takes our understanding of the period to a new level to have it in Blair's voice. He calculated that he needed Brown in 1994, and so "cajoled" him into maintaining the partnership.

What was true then continued to be true throughout: an open breach would put Brown on the back benches at the head of a mainstream left faction that would weaken Blair far more than having the faction boss inside the tent. "When it's said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilised, and his ascent to the office of prime minister would probably have been even faster."

This is a surprisingly candid admission from such a proud leader: that his position – certainly after the Iraq invasion – was not strong enough to allow him to sack Brown. It was only Blair's brute political virtuosity that enabled him to spin out his weakness, to survive in No 10 for so long. Even when forced out of office, Blair could not disown Brown because, although Brown had no flair for retail politics, he had operated the Labour Party machine with a brute political skill of his own to ensure that there would be no rival for the succession.

This is not a book likely to change many minds, although I suspect that there are rather more people in Britain who take the view now regarded as right off the political scale: that Blair was quite a good Prime Minister. The chapter on Iraq is tightly argued in some detail, which may persuade those with open minds to recognise that the decision to join the US invasion was a reasonable, if not very successful, one, rather than a conspiracy against life, the universe and everything decent.

The book is, above all, a political argument about how to win elections and make social progress. As Blair has said, he thought Brown's mistake was to move "a millimetre to the left". In the book he does not say that he thought Brown would be a "disaster", as has been reported, but that it would be a disaster "if" he vacated the centre ground. But Blair is tactlessly honest enough to make it clear he thought the past 13 years consisted of 10 years of a successful formula, and three wasted years of something else. The difference was not simply that Brown was in the wrong place on the left-right spectrum, but that he lacked the risk-taking leadership style that made the New Labour formula work. As an analysis it may be simplified, but it is not wholly wrong. No wonder Blair should venerate his own "instinct" so greatly.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday' and author of 'Tony Blair: Prime Minister' (Warner Books)