It was love at first bite. That is, when the executives from Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper invited a fresh-faced Labour frontbencher called Tony Blair to dinner.
I was the paper’s political correspondent and suggested the get-to-know-you session. It wasn’t difficult to spot in the late 1980s that Mr Blair and Gordon Brown would rise to the very top of the Labour Party. Mr Blair was unknown to my senior colleagues but, with his easy charm, he immediately had them eating out of his hand.
It wasn’t a case of him telling them what they wanted to hear, though he was famously good at that. At that first meeting with News International, Mr Blair only had to be himself. He genuinely believed, as he reminded the Leveson inquiry today, that the power enjoyed by trade unions meant they should be regulated by the state. Labour was still committed to repealing the “Thatcher laws” on strike ballots and secondary action, so he was ahead of his time. But NI loved it. Similarly, it lapped up his opposition to old-style public ownership, later encapsulated by his dumping of Clause IV of Labour’s constitution.
Today, Bambi looked much greyer but the bounce and charm were still there. The former Prime Minister’s appearance before Lord Justice Leveson was a stroll in the park compared to his grilling at the Iraq inquiry and Lord Hutton’s investigation into the death of the government scientist David Kelly. I used to imagine Mr Blair as a news editor: in his head, he worked out what the potential headline would be before he spoke, adjusting his words according to whether he wanted the headline or not.
Today he was still at it, shining very little new light on his relationship with Mr Murdoch. I always believed there was an understanding that New Labour would not restrict Mr Murdoch’s cross-media ambitions (as the party’s previous policy would have done) in return for the Murdoch papers dropping the hostility they displayed towards Neil Kinnock, which Mr Blair was determined to avoid at all costs. The deal would not have been written down; it didn’t have to be.
Mr Blair finally admitted today that it was “perfectly reasonable” to criticise him for singling out The Independent and not mentioning the Daily Mail and The Sun in his 2007 valedictory speech attacking the media as a “feral beast”.
The former PM, a technophobe in office, quipped that he was lucky he didn’t do emails and texts while at Number 10. How David Cameron must wish the same.
The current PM and his team used to refer to Mr Blair as “the master” for winning three elections. They copied his campaign strategy to the letter. That included cosying up the media in general and Mr Murdoch in particular. Mr Blair has little to fear from the Leveson inquiry. As the man in the seat of power when the music stopped, Mr Cameron has an awful lot to worry about.
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