Bruce Anderson: Once I defended Tony Blair against charges of lying. But I now realise that I was wrong

Iraq should have been his finest achievement. Instead, he lied to the House and lied to the people
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, the personal is the political. Many voters dislike personal attacks during election campaigns. They would prefer politicians to stick to the issues. But there are times when the politician is the issue. Tony Blair's character is now under scrutiny, and rightly so. Britain deserves a Prime Minister who tells the truth.

Sometimes, the personal is the political. Many voters dislike personal attacks during election campaigns. They would prefer politicians to stick to the issues. But there are times when the politician is the issue. Tony Blair's character is now under scrutiny, and rightly so. Britain deserves a Prime Minister who tells the truth.

Few prime ministers have enjoyed the opportunities he had in 1997. He won an enormous majority; he inherited a healthy economy; he was facing a discredited Opposition; he was buoyed up by public goodwill. Most 20th-century premiers came to office overshadowed by hardship, crisis or war. They had to graft and fight to earn their political capital. Not Tony Blair; he was offered the keys of Fort Knox.

So he was in a position to do pretty much what he liked. As the former Labour minister Frank Field said recently, if Tony Blair had told the British people to walk on water, they would have set out for the Sea of Galilee. Mr Blair had two great tasks which he wished to accomplish. Had he achieved either, he would have gone down in history as an important prime minister. Had he succeeded in both, he would have earned a place in the front rank. But in each case, he ran away.

The two challenges were Europe and the public services. For those of us who are committed anti-federalists, 1997 was the hour of maximum danger. The Tory party, already disabled, could have faced a further crisis. In those days, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke were two of the biggest beasts in the political jungle. On Europe, they would have roared in support of Tony Blair, who would also have received help from the Liberals and the City.

That was the moment to convince the British people that their destiny lay at the heart of Europe. But Tony Blair would not commit his troops; he would not risk a clash with public opinion. This cowardice in the face of the enemy invalidates his claim to be Margaret Thatcher's political heir. Unlike him, she understood the use of political capital. Like everything else in the world, it should be put to work, not kept in a piggy bank; the parable of the talents is in her DNA. By mid-term in a parliament, indeed, she always expected to run a large overdraft at the bank of political capital.

Tony Blair could not be more different. He is like an old miser who polishes and gloats over his gold coins every night, counting them anxiously lest any should have gone missing. That is not the way to the political heights.

His second opportunity for greatness came over the public services. He knew there ought to be radical reform. On constitutional matters, his impatience with history was a great weakness. On public services, it could have been an advantage. Unlike almost everyone else in the Labour Party, he had no sentimental attachment to the post-1945 Attlee settlement, and why should he? Why should anyone assume that health and educational systems created during an era of austerity were still appropriate 50 years later?

If Mr Blair had acted on his radical instincts, he could have prevailed. Secretly on his side, the Tories would not have known how to respond. There would have been trouble from the Labour left and opportunism from the Liberals, but nothing that would have deflected a serious politician.

Mr Blair was not a serious politician. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, he was not prepared to battle through the detail. He contented himself with skimming along the surface of the headlines. On public service reform, he has never displayed any intellectual stamina.

No one could accuse Gordon Brown of that deficiency. But he has used it to sabotage any prospect of public service radicalism. He has merely taxed, spent - and wasted. No Chancellor has ever presided over such a huge transfer of wealth from the productive sectors of the economy to the unproductive ones. On tax, regulation and public spending, Gordon Brown may talk American. But he acts Rhineland.

There was a basic weakness which helps to explain Tony Blair's failures. He had deceived himself. Most criminals are their own principal victims. That may also apply to dishonest politicians, and Tony Blair was certainly enthralled to his Gobbelsian big lie: the one he used to help him win the 1997 election.

From 1994 onwards, Mr Blair convinced millions of voters that the Tories had virtually abolished public expenditure and that if re-elected, they would finish it off all together. He knew that health spending had increased by 60 per cent in real terms during the Tory years and that the government was spending well over £300bn a year. He chose to pretend otherwise. It worked.

So he took office in the complacent assumption that all he had to do was twirl a few dials, say "hey presto", announce that he had reinvented public spending - and all would be well. That did not work. Within a few months, faced the same problem that had bedevilled all previous governments. How do you ensure a taxpayer's pound spent by the Government obtains anything like the same value for money as the pound he spends on his own behalf?

Tony Blair did not even try. As soon as he was confronted by a political difficulty, he retreated.

There was one outstanding exception to this recurrent failure of nerve and moral fibre: Iraq. There, no one could accuse Mr Blair of ducking a difficult decision. It should have been his finest achievement. But it was compromised by littleness and lies. Tony Blair could have tried to confront public opinion in an unpopular cause. Had he done so, I believe that he would have won respect even from many who disagreed with him. Instead, he distorted the intelligence and exaggerated the threat from weapons of mass destruction. In so doing, he undermined public confidence in the security and intelligence services. No prime minister could commit a worse breach of trust.

The lying has continued. As Brian Sedgemore reminded us yesterday, the Anglo-American decision to go to war with Saddam was taken at Easter 2002, in Mr Bush's Crawford ranch. Yet in his evidence to the Butler inquiry, Mr Blair claimed the matter was still open several months later.

Early in the Blair premiership, I defended the PM against the charge of lying. Debating on television with Norman Tebbit, I said that Mr Blair was not really a liar because whenever he was speaking, he always persuaded himself that he was telling the truth. Norman was unimpressed. "That's too highfalutin' for me. In my book, a liar is a man who tells lies.'' He was right.

This is a Prime Minister who lied to the House of Commons. He lied to the British people. He lied to Lord Butler. There is no truth in him. At the time of the Profumo affair, The Times produced a headline which became famous: "It is a moral issue.'' The same is true now. This is a prime minister who has broken faith and forfeited all claim to trust. He does not deserve a single vote.