Christmas Books Special: Politics

It pays to be pleasant to your biographers
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The Independent Culture

Writing biographies of practising politicians is like gambling in the futures market. You have to hope your subject stays in high office long enough to give you a reading public. Stephen Pollard, who spent two years working on a new biography, David Blunkett (Hodder £20), will have watched the past couple of weeks' news bulletins with mixed feelings.

Writing biographies of practising politicians is like gambling in the futures market. You have to hope your subject stays in high office long enough to give you a reading public. Stephen Pollard, who spent two years working on a new biography, David Blunkett (Hodder £20), will have watched the past couple of weeks' news bulletins with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the book's two final chapters, dealing with the Kimberly Quinn affair, had already been bought by the Daily Mail, and the opinions he gleaned from Blunkett about fellow Cabinet ministers were gleefully read out by Michael Howard at Wednesday's question time. (The book also reports Blunkett's succinct views on the "buffoonery" of the former Lord Chancellor, on the usefulness of the US head of inland security Tom Ridge, on the effectiveness of the Metropolitan police chief, Sir John Stevens and others.)

On the other, the book has had to be rushed into print early, and now ends by wondering aloud whether its subject can survive in office, musing that even if he does he will be "damaged - perhaps irreparably". If Blunkett doesn't survive, who will want to read all those nicely written but slightly under-researched chapters describing his amazing rise from the backstreets of Sheffield, through Labour's hard left and the Education department, to where he is now?

The problem for someone writing yet another biography of Tony Blair, by contrast, is how to say anything new. Journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke, authors of The Blairs and their Court (Aurum £18.99) had another hurdle before them, that Blair himself and all his entourage refused to be interviewed by them. They suggest in their preface that their conclusions might have been more "charitable" if they had had more co-operation.

The result is not a well-laid storehouse of information, but more of a jumble with some interesting bits and pieces. One of the authors, Francis Beckett, was a Labour Party press officer in the early 1980s, so the book has the best account of Blair's first election campaign, in Beaconsfield in 1982.

But their inclusions and omissions are in places downright eccentric. There is a good account of the placing of Labour people on local health trusts - which has nothing to do with Blair personally, but was a story that Hencke covered for the Guardian. On the other hand, Kosovo and Afghanistan are not mentioned, while the national minimum wage receives just a passing mention as having been brought in "at the lowest possible level". Rupert Murdoch merits the same number of appearances in the index as the Slough Observer.

The Tony Blair they portray is a manipulator with no deeply held beliefs, but a man of great charm and "a political tactician of rare skill and ruthlessness". They assert that he is a Roman Catholic, though why someone as hollow as they think Blair is should practise his religion in secret is difficult to understand. They also make the interesting claim that Cherie Blair opposed the Iraq war, and hint that one day she will come out and say so. Interesting, if true.

It is a funny thing to write about a politician, but you could read the early part of Clare Short's memoir, An Honourable Deception? New Labour, Iraq and the Misuse of Power (Simon & Schuster £15) without realising how important a figure she was in the Labour Party, before Tony Blair took control. There were four different books she could have written after she had left office: an autobiography, an account of the party's evolution, a handbook on international aid, or a polemic about the Iraq war. She tried to conflate all four into 280 pages, with Iraq occupying the largest part.

No doubt the publishers wanted the word "Iraq" in the subtitle, but her role in that controversy was neither central nor very satisfactory, whereas her part in reforming the Labour Party, campaigning for feminism and opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been, whether you like her or not, remarkable. She writes that Labour in the 1980s had two tasks: to sort itself out, and then to sort out its public image. "It was the Labour Party led by Kinnock and Smith that attended to the substance and New Labour led by Tony Blair that sorted out the image." That is true, and she was one of those who dealt with the substance, but she rushes through that part of the story too quickly to prove her case. A pity.

Poor old Derek Scott. It must be grim to spend six-and-a-half years being an economic adviser to someone who does not seem to listen much to your advice. The fun part of his book, Off Whitehall: A view from Downing Street by Tony Blair's adviser (IB Tauris £18.95) tells of the ghastly time he had being piggy in the middle in the Blair-Brown relationship. The rest is a learned essay on Britain and the EU, to be read by specialists only.

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