Steve Richards: Both interviews were reminders of his unique skill as a leader

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's return to the political stage went beyond the publication of his memoirs. He gave two lengthy broadcast interviews, one to Andrew Marr on BBC2 and the other on Five Live with Richard Bacon. The interview is his natural forum and both were reminders of his unique skill as a leader.

He displayed a tonal range, a capacity for humour and a deft use of language that leaves other senior politicians in the shade. Blair's combination of self-deprecating wit and earnest sense of destiny, convenient evasiveness and striking clarity, naïve apolitical simplicity and the keen awareness of power and its limits make for a compelling mix.

Neither interview got any further on Iraq, probably because there is nowhere else to go. A day at the Chilcott Inquiry elicited nothing new. The book is not revelatory in this policy area either. What we got in both interviews was more explicit regret about the loss of life. As Blair pointed out to both interviewers, it would be inhuman not to care. The attempts to make Blair say "sorry" for the entire war were always silly. Even if he has doubts, and I bet he does, he can never admit to them publicly precisely because British soldiers have died as a result of his decision. Instead, he is doomed forever to justify a decision that he admits, in his less Messianic moments, was a close call.

Revealingly, in both interviews he never admitted to the real decision he had to take. He insisted he had to decide whether to remove Saddam. He did not. His decision was subtly and yet significantly different. He had to decide whether to support President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. If Blair had opposed the conflict, the war would still have gone ahead. Even his skills as an interviewee do not get him very far in relation to Iraq. When Marr asked him what he felt when the WMD were not found, Blair expressed fleeting concern and then moved on, as if the endless pre-war press conferences and speeches in which he argued passionately that the weapons posed a threat were of no great importance.

In his interview with Five Live, Blair got closer to a more nuanced account of his relationship with Gordon Brown, by stressing that a lot of their rows were over policy issues and not only part of some mad soap opera fuelled by personal hatred alone.

Marr moved on to fertile terrain when he asked Blair whether his real journey had been to the political right. This is the great mystery of recent days: why did Blair join the Labour Party? I wish Marr had more time to explore the question because any reader of the book does not get an answer.

Blair has depoliticised politics by denying the existence of significant ideological differences. But in his interview with Bacon he succeeded in humanising politics. He said: "I used to regard leaders and prime ministers as a bit weird... and then I became Prime Minister and found I had the same range of emotions as before I got the position." One of them was fear. I sense he was a more fearful prime minister than most, but easily the most relaxed interviewee who has led a party and a country.