Balmoral, booze, and the rest of Blair's book digested

Andy McSmith picks out the highlights from the publishing event of the year

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:06

Brown at his worst

We knew the Blair-Brown relationship was bad, but not this bad. At its nadir, there was an "Arctic" meeting about whether to adopt pension reforms proposed by the former head of the CBI, Adair Turner. Blair was for, Brown against. When they met, Brown first insisted that they talk about the "cash for honours" affair, in which Blair's friend Lord Levy was accused of soliciting funds for the Labour Party in exchange for peerages. Brown threatened to call for a party inquiry unless Blair abandoned the Turner report. Blair endorsed it, and an hour later the party treasurer, Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman's husband, called for the threatened inquiry. "I don't know for a fact that Gordon put Jack up to it," Blair admits, but "I can truthfully say it was the ugliest meeting we ever had."

In the end he concluded that "Gordon is a strange guy", but that was not his real problem because there is "a sort of endearing charm in the strangeness". His real problem was that he did not really understand New Labour. Yet, before all that, there was the intense partnership which Blair twice likens to a love affair.

Who invented the phrase 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'?

Answer: Gordon Brown, as Blair has now confirmed. That was in the days when they were not just "as close as two people ever are in politics" but were, at times, "a bit like lovers desperate to get round to love-making but disturbed by friends dropping round". When Blair heard his friend coin what was to become his best known catchphrase, he was "stunned by the brilliance of it".

When choosing a leader – forget Buggins

Blair reveals himself as more of an intriguer than he looked. In 1991, while managing to appear to be one of Neil Kinnock's most loyal supporters, Blair secretly tried to persuade John Smith to oust him, but Smith preferred to wait his turn, which came after the 1992 election. Then, Blair tried to get Gordon Brown to run against Smith, hoping to be Brown's shadow Chancellor. Brown preferred to wait until his turn came when Smith died suddenly in May 1994.

But that April, in Paris, Blair had a "premonition". He woke Cherie up to say: "If John dies, I will be leader, not Gordon." And on the day of Smith's death, when Peter Mandelson reminded him that Brown was still the heir apparent, Blair put his hands on Mandelson's shoulders and said: "Peter, don't cross me over this. This is mine. I know and I will take it." He also talked it over with Gordon several times. "Conversations were difficult, but they were not hostile, bitter or even unfriendly. We were like a couple who loved each other, arguing whose career should come first."

Being duplicitous

In Blair's private office they had a phrase "SO" for "sackable offence", applied to wasting the Leader's time by arranging a meeting with someone he did not need to meet. "It applied – I am a little ashamed to say – even if I had expressed to the individual concerned my deep frustration with my office for defying my wishes and not scheduling the meeting."

Getting it wrong

In 1997, Blair accepted a £1m donation to party funds from the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, and agreed to ease up on rules restricting tobacco sponsorship. It was "a really stupid lapse of judgement". Another mistake was the "stupidity" and "futility" of trying to prevent Ken Livingstone from becoming London's Mayor in 2000. And there was the Millennium Dome, which "wasn't dreadful: it just wasn't brilliant".

There was also the ban on fox hunting – "a complete lapse" mitigated by a compromise which allowed hunting to carry on provided the fox was not killed with too much cruelty, and enabled Blair to win a bet with Prince Charles that hunting would persist after the "ban".

Above all, there was the Freedom of Information Act, which Blair regards as of no use to anyone but journalists who use it as a weapon to beat the government. "Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders, you idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate ... Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him?"

If I had known then...

Iraq: "The intelligence was wrong. We admitted it. We apologised for it... Humans make errors and, given Saddam's history, it was an understandable error." What is more, "If I had known then [in 2001] that a decade later we would still be fighting in Afghanistan, I would have been profoundly perturbed and alarmed. I hope I would have still taken the same decision, both there and in respect of Iraq. To have tried to escape the confrontation would have been a terrible error, an act of cowardice."

Why did David Kelly die?

"I will never know precisely what made Dr Kelly take his own life. Who can ever know the reason behind these things? It was so sad, unnecessary and terrible... Probably, unused to the intensity of pressure generated, he felt hemmed in and possibly vulnerable to internal discipline if his role emerged. I don't know and shouldn't speculate."

Being a technophobe

Before he met Bill Gates, Blair was frantically tutored by David Miliband so he would not reveal his ignorance – which he did by asking Gates "how his mainframe was". Miliband, Blair claims, "never quite recovered".

The "People's Princess"

This famous description of Princess Diana, uttered by Blair on the day she died, now sounds "corny" and "over the top", he admits, but he said it because he "wanted to capture the way she touched people's lives".

Weird times in Balmoral

Staying at Balmoral was "intriguing, surreal and freaky" in Blair's experience. He claims that when a valet asked if he could "draw the bath", the Prime Minister was so bemused that he "actually thought he wanted to sketch the damn thing". He did not bring his oldest son Euan, because of Euan's "genius" capacity for winding people up with provocative comments. "The blood froze at the thought of what he would say to the Queen, let alone the Queen Mother." Relief came in the form of a stiff drink before dinner. "This stuff – I was never quite sure what it was – was absolutely what was needed. It was rocket fuel."

His alcohol intake

Tony Blair suggests that a whole book could be written about prime ministers and alcohol. He could have added leaders of the opposition too, because there is a passage in which he attributes John Smith's early death to his predecessor's constant social drinking, which did not interfere with his work or cause a hangover but gradually undermined his health. Of himself, Blair admits that after a few years in office, "I was definitely at the outer limit. Stiff whiskey or G&T before dinner, a glass of wine or even half a bottle with it. Not so excessively excessive, but I was aware it had become a prop."

Euan's night out

Drink got the better of Euan Blair when he was 16 and celebrating his GCSEs. Cherie was away, and at 11.30pm, Tony was alarmed to discover his son had not come home. Unable to go looking for him personally, he persuaded a friendly copper to go instead. The officer returned with a "very sorry-assed-looking Euan" who had been arrested, drunk, in Leicester Square. "I got no sleep that night. Around 2.30am, Euan insisted on coming into my bed. Alternately, he would go into a mournful tirade of apology and then throw up. I loved him and felt sorry for him, but had a police cell been available I would have been all for moving him there."

Stage fright

One of Blair's greatest assets was the apparently relaxed, effortless way he dealt with PMQs in the Commons. Now he tells us it was "the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life." It is, he reckons "a blood sport – and the prime minister is the quarry."

The pitfalls of class

The first big mistake Blair made after being elected an MP in 1983 was to agree to debate with Dennis Skinner. Skinner, a former coalface miner, took the stuffing out of the new boy over his background, public school education, profession, and even his full name. He was a "complete clot" to walk into the trap, Blair admitted. After, he concluded there is a small radical, activist working class and a much larger and mainly non-political working class that "understood and applauded aspiration", and was "eye-wateringly tough" on law and order.

Cameron and Hague

Blair judged David Cameron to be "clever and people-friendly" with some "real steel" – "but he had not gone through the arduous but highly educative apprenticeship I had gone through in the 1980s and early 90s". He says he was "puzzled" by how someone as talented as William Hague could run a campaign as bad as the Tories did in the 2001 election. He respected a "a truly outstanding debater" with "a high grade intellect" with the ability to be a great prime minister, but was too engaged in weaving "amusing demonstrations of wit" to think through what point he was trying to make.

Who shopped Peter Mandelson?

The first big cabinet resignation of the Blair premiership came after details emerged of a home loan Peter Mandelson had received from Geoffrey Robinson, who was under investigation by his department. What really shocked Blair was that someone on the inside should have leaked the information. "What is the mentality of such a person? Determined, vengeful, verging on wicked." He suspected Gordon Brown's spin doctor, Charlie Whelan, and insisted that he be sacked, though "in one sense sacking Charlie Whelan was unjust because I really didn't know he was responsible". As for Mandelson's second resignation in 2001, it was such a fuss about so small an issue that it was "almost pathetic".

Crazy Man Campbell

Many adjectives have been used to describe Tony Blair's former communications director. Tony Blair adds another – "crazy" – but in a way that gave him "creativity, strength, ingenuity and verve". In a separate passage, Mr Blair described Campbell as "highly strung" adding: "believe it or not, I only really understood this to its full extent when I read his diaries".

The day John Prescott thumped the man with the mullet

From his account, it appears that Blair did not know whether to laugh or throw up his hands in horror when he learnt that the Deputy Prime Minister had punched a member of the public. Personally he thought that "the egg was funny, the mullet was funny, the left hook was funny, the expression on both their faces were funny", but his mostly Southern women advisers did not like it. Not knowing what to say at the following morning's press conference, Blair took the "Eric Cantona approach", by saying enigmatically: "John is John".

Life with John

More generally, he thought Prescott was unique, maddening, dangerous, absurd, magnificent and "one of the most fascinating characters ever to hold really high office". He added: "His foibles were usually on the endearing end of the spectrum – though some women I know strongly disagree with that assessment. He was definitely old-fashioned, not great at working with a certain type of middle-class woman, and though sound on the policy on gay rights was led more by his head than his heart, if you know what I mean. He was also completely paranoid about smart, young, well-spoken intellectual types. With these, he was like a pig with a truffle. He could smell out condescension, a slight, an air of superiority or a snub at a thousand paces."

The cabinet minister best able to drive Prescott into a rage was the former health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who "would patronise him in the most wonderfully insensitive fashion: 'Now, John, that's a very, very good point you've just made, and it's always so worth listening to you.'"

Prescott and the heir to the throne

Prescott regularly met Prince Charles as Environment Secretary, but there seems to have been a gulf of misunderstanding between them. One day Charles asked Blair: "Does he ever do that thing with you?"

"What thing?"

"Er, when he's sitting opposite you, he slides down the seat with his legs apart, his crotch pointing a little menacingly, and balances his teacup and saucer on his tummy." Charles feared it was a gesture of "class enmity".

Should David Miliband have run against Brown in 2007?

Miliband and Blair talked about it. Blair told him that he might win, but it was not a certainty. Blair "didn't blame him at all" for ducking, but suggested he should stand ready to force a leadership election in case the occasion arose, which could happen "sooner than we might think".

What he thinks of Ed Balls

"Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. These guys never 'get' aspiration... they think that a person worried about their tax rates was essentially selfish and therefore by implication morally a little lost."

Of David Blunkett, politicians and sex

"I adored and deeply admired David and also found his whole attitude over his child – he wouldn't give up on access, despite the threat of publicity if he proceeded – very principled. He was a truly decent guy, a great political talent. He picked the wrong woman. Easy to do. Fatal in politics." Later, musing on John Prescott's affair with Tracey Temple, Blair wonders whether it is true that power is an aphrodisiac. "I suppose it must be true since, let's face it, most politicians are definitely on the debit side of the good-looks ledger. You could say the same about ugly billionaires with gorgeous women. What do they see in them? It's pretty obvious."

Of George W Bush

When Blair was asked in front of a "fairly liberal" audience which of the political leaders he knew had the most integrity, he caused some shock and merriment by naming the US President. He meant it. Bush, he writes "had genuine integrity and as much political courage as any leader I ever met... He was, in a bizarre sense (bizarre because it appears counter-intuitive) a true idealist" who believed in spreading democracy around. That is despite Guantanamo which, Blair says, "was both understandable and, done in a different way, justifiable", but "came to be seen as a poke in the eye for all those who believed in the rule of law".

As for the occasion when Bush greeted him with a "Yo, Blair", which others read as an insult to Britain – "Yo Blair was a joke; but unfortunately, only I got it."

And of Boris Yeltsin

Blair's relations with Russia's "unpredictable" President had gone through a sticky patch during the Kosovo crisis, because of the natural affinity between Russians and Serbs, but at their first face-to-face meeting, after it was over, all was forgiven, and Blair was treated to the famous Russian hug. "The first 10 seconds were, I thought, wonderfully friendly. The next 10 began to get a little uncomfortable. The following 10 started respiratory problems. I finally got released after about a minute and staggered off in search of a stiff drink. I think he made his point."

The 'destructive' left and its inspiring preacher

It became almost Tony Blair's life's mission to eradicate the left that dominated Labour in the early 1980s, with its beliefs in unilateral disarmament, state intervention, strong unions and withdrawal from the EC. "Destructive nonsense", he calls it. Yet he gives a euphoric account of hearing its mastermind, Tony Benn, speaking in public years ago. "I sat enraptured, absolutely inspired. I thought: if only I could speak like that. What impressed me was not the content – actually I didn't agree with a lot of it – but the power of it." But, he decided, Benn was a "preacher" and "battles aren't won by preachers".

What they say about the Blair book

"Where I come from, a gin and tonic, two glasses of wine – you wouldn't give that to a budgie."

John Reid, former health secretary, on Tony Blair's drinking revelations

"This book is the predictable wallowing in self-pity and self-promotion of a Labour leader who squandered a golden opportunity to tackle the inequalities in our society. Blair could have taken the side of millions of working people against the greed and corruption of the bankers and speculators. Instead he sided with the rich and his legacy will always be of a war-monger whose instincts are to follow the trail of cash."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union

"Though A Journey is bound to be a bestseller, far more people will read and hear about it than will read it. And though the screaming headlines may be justified by concentrating on one part of the book at one time, in a memoir as large and significant as that written by a former prime minister, it really is important to see that broader, fuller context."

Alastair Campbell, former No 10 spin doctor

"I am a Blair supporter but am I alone in thinking this settling of scores demeans all involved? Yesterday's politics is yesterday's politics."

Denis McShane, former Labour minister, writing on Twitter

"Perhaps his biggest delusion is his claim that New Labour will come to be seen as a 'great reforming government', when in fact history will judge it as a huge wasted opportunity between Thatcherism Mark 1 and the Thatcherism Mark 2 to which New Labour has now delivered us. It is however an enormous relief that on the very day the diaries are published the voting begins on a new Labour party leadership which will finally close the door on the tragedy of the Blair interregnum."

Michael Meacher Labour MP

"What does it say about Tony Blair that he knew Gordon Brown would be a disaster as Prime Minister, yet actively endorsed him and facilitated his election as Labour leader? It's not exactly a sign of being a great leader, is it? A real leader and statesman would have taken measures to ensure it could never happen. The fact that Blair didn't do that shows why he can never be regarded as a great prime minister."

Iain Dale, Tory blogger

"I have huge respect for Tony Blair and everything he achieved for Labour. But I am saddened that he has chosen this day of all days to publish his book. As ballot papers land, Labour should be looking to the future. Instead, senior figures in our party are re-running the battles of the past through this leadership campaign."

Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary and Labour leadership contender

"Let's be very careful about this. This is a one-sided version. I hear Tony say we did not continue with the New Labour policies. I used to hear the arguments between them about foundation hospitals, about academies, about pensions... Gordon continued those policies. He did not disown them."

Lord Prescott, former Labour deputy prime minister

"I would like to apologise for my reporting of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the years they were together in government. Some said it was tittle-tattle, others that it was speculation, a few dared to suggest that it was fabrication. I now accept that I made mistakes. Things were worse – much worse – than I reflected at the time."

Nick Robinson, BBC political editor

Omissions: What Blair decided we didn't need to know about

Rupert Murdoch

Tony Blair describes going halfway round the world in 1995 to talk to Murdoch's executives, and admits to a "grudging respect and even liking" for the media mogul. Apart from that, he says nothing about their relationship. No mention, for instance, of the time he rang the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to ease Murdoch's bid to buy into Italian television.

Reconstructing Iraq

When Clare Short resigned from the cabinet in May 2003 it was because, she claimed, Tony Blair and Jack Straw had negotiated a UN resolution on rebuilding – in which her department would be heavily involved – and that she had first heard about it from the BBC. Was this right? Blair has nothing to say about the circumstances of her departure.

Operation Teddy Bear

Peter Mandelson has claimed in his memoirs that in 2003 he, Blair and a couple of others worked on a secret plan to clip Gordon Brown's wings and divide the Treasury into two departments. He claimed that Blair "agonised" before rejecting it. True or false, not a word of this is to be found in the Blair book.


It is a long-established fact – or myth – that in 1994 Blair and Brown met at Granita restaurant, in Islington, north London, to thrash out a deal under which Brown stood aside to give Blair a clear run for the labour leadership. Blair mentions a series of meetings with Brown in that period, but not a word about this legendary meal.

Euan Blair's schooling

The Blairs' decision to send their sons to the Oratory, a Catholic school, rather than the local comprehensive, was front-page news at the time and caused friction between Blair and Alastair Campbell. Blair describes the furore around Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to grammar school, but makes no mention of his own dilemma as a parent.

Who should be the next Labour leader?

Blair says that by 2009, David Miliband had developed "clear leadership qualities". He criticises Ed Balls, but does not say anything much about Ed Miliband. So is he backing the older Miliband? When asked directly by Andrew Marr, in the interview broadcast on Tuesday night, Blair hinted that it was so, but would not give a direct answer.

Spin and intrigue

In 1991, while managing to appear one of Neil Kinnock's staunchest supporters, Blair tried to persuade John Smith to oust him.

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