Through the eye of Tony's needle

BOOK REVIEW Tony Blair by John Rentoul Little Brown, pounds 16.95

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Politics is a dirty business and Tony Blair is a clean man. What will happen now that they are put together in the wash of the next general election? And what will happen after that, when a Labour government has to follow the mire and grime of a post-Tory world?

We cannot yet know, but John Rentoul makes a brave attempt to answer through a biography in a hurry. His is, I think, a highly competent try, made impressive more by wit and insight rather than by what Ben Pimlott suggests on the dust cover was "thorough research". It is a distinctively modern insight, with television and radio interviews as the main sources, not academic analyses or family records.

Hence the early chapters on family and school origins are sketchy by comparison with the treatment of recent parliamentary and party partisanship, leading to dramatic discussion of destinations which the nation awaits. Will he be another Attlee? Or could he be another Lansbury (a possibility nowhere mentioned)? Or could he lose the election?

One could go in speculative comparison through all Blair's14 predecessors. Rentoul does not do so, but no doubt some future biographer will. Audit of this kind is best left until Blair is 70, in 2023.

The commonplace that politics is dirty has never been made more public than by the contemporary media. So far as I can judge, the Thatcher clique have corrupted Westminster and Whitehall to a degree unknown since the Napoleonic Wars. But the Labour Party is not much better, and Rentoul's account of Peter Mandelson and the apparatchiks is menacing, even chilling. I am not myself privy to any of this. It only serves to emphasise the torments of Blair as he seeks to thread his way through the eye of the needle.

What is most striking about this side of Rentoul's story is that the path was mostly cleared by Neil Kinnock, ironically an unbeliever, but possessed of immense moral and political courage. Kinnock told me, before John Smith died, that Blair, above all other colleagues, was the most loyal, the most honest and the most prescient in advice to the leader.

So what will happen? I cannot believe Blair will be corrupted by "right- wing" betrayals (despite the siren voices of the electoral middle- ground and the fashionable media, and despite the natural temptation to do one's best for one's own children). Nor will the party be purified (though Kinnock certainly played Hercules in the Augean stables). Nor do I think we shall hear too much about Christian socialism. A successful party must command at least 30 per cent of the electorate and it will have to be persuaded by ethical socialism. Britain is probably ready to accept this broader appeal, goaded into outrage by political and monetary malpractice. Gordon Brown is a conceivable puritanical chancellor, Frank Field could manage a radical new social security system.

I do not know Blair at all well, but we met at dinner recently and discussed the question of who is the second most interesting character in the New Testament. He thought Pontius Pilate. I dismissed his opinion as short- term and political, and suggested that the Good Samaritan (minority group and direct action) would make or break the politics of the 21st century. He promised not to be Pilate. I hope he will find ways of getting the state to make more of its citizens into Samaritans.

AH Halsey

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