Steve Richards: A journey that leads to Cameron

Blair is wrong about Brown, and about the crisis. He warns of a 'drift to the left' but does not explain how his alternative differs from the Conservatives

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:37

Tony Blair is Labour's great election winner. No Labour leader will win three successive victories by such wide margins again. In the memoir there should be a model for his successors to follow, at least a hint of a route back to power. There is one, but it is for another party. There is nothing I have read that could not have been written by David Cameron, George Osborne or Michael Gove, a self-confessed Blairite. As I wrote on Tuesday in the context of Labour's leadership contest, Cameron has worked out how to deal with Blair's version of New Labour. He supports it.

The problem begins on page two of the opening chapter when Blair states his position. "I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of traditional left or right, but a moderniser." In a single sentence he de-politicises politics. Who does not believe themselves to be modern? Attlee "modernised" the state. Thatcher "modernised" the state. They took entirely different approaches based on beliefs that were rooted either on the left or right. Blair merely "modernises".

He explains that what he sought was a "progressive alternative to the Conservatives", but thanks to his rootless imprecision the Conservatives claim to be the progressives as well. Most people I meet consider themselves to be "progressive" and indeed "modern". The terms are meaningless.

Blair expands a little, but only with a list of familiar platitudes that were in some cases tested to destruction by what happened in office. He cites the value of being close to the US and at the heart of Europe, a third way blown apart by Iraq. He stresses the importance of supporting innovation and equality of opportunity. All parties are in favour of both.

The vague course is set and we are off on a route that conveys Blair's authentic voice, the mix of self-deprecating humour, attractive awareness of the ridiculous and at the same time a messianic sense of destiny fuelled by an outlook unburdened by forensic examination.

On his famously dire relationship with Brown he is more nuanced than headlines suggest, acknowledging generously strengths as well as famous weaknesses. On himself he characteristically breaks with tradition and writes more personally than any previous Prime Minister. In policy terms he was the most cautious Prime Minister since the Second World War (including in relation to Iraq – it would have been much bolder to oppose the mighty US President), but as a communicator he was a revolutionary and continues to be so by humanising the prime ministerial role.

When I interviewed advisers who had worked with him in No 10 for a series a few years ago they all said he was a pleasure to work with, including those who disagreed with him in policy terms. They admired the calm decency under fire. In some cases they became Blairites on these grounds alone. They liked him even as he moved rightwards and invaded Iraq. My guess is that parts of the book will have a similar impact. They will charm. From my limited reading the political analysis will not withstand much scrutiny.

The postscript is most relevant to current politics and is freshest in terms of Blair's thinking. Blair was admirably self-disciplined in keeping quiet during Brown's leadership and in the run-up to the election, a quality that Heath and Thatcher failed to display when they ceased to be leaders. Now he has his cathartic moment by proclaiming that Labour lost the last election because it "stopped being New Labour".

In making the vague assertion he omits one awkward point. When he left office in 2007, after he had followed an unremitting "New Labour" agenda for several years, the Conservatives enjoyed a substantial lead in the polls. The reasons for this were multi-layered and not simply down to his policies and his deranged 10-year plans, which were to be applied when he had left office. In fairness, there were other reasons. Towards the end, Blair was portrayed widely and wrongly as a lying war criminal. The scale of the distortion made it impossible for him to say or do anything without it being projected as "spin" or worse.

Even so, Blair did more or less what he wished in domestic politics after the 2005 election. In a curiously dangerous way the calamity of Iraq made him more assertive and self-confident about his abilities on the domestic scene. As he acted, Blairite New Labour became increasingly unpopular.

His more detailed analysis of why Labour lost is equally muddled. In relation to the economic crisis Blair argues that Brown "bought completely the 'state is back in fashion' thesis".

The observation is contentious on many grounds. First of all, Brown did not completely buy the thesis. Brown recognised the profundity of the crisis, but typically agonised over whether to argue that his belief in the state had helped pull Britain back from total collapse. Most of the time he did not do so, preferring the managerial argument that governments around the world were responding in the same way as Britain whether they were from the left or right. Sometimes he was bold enough to point out that his government would do "whatever it takes" to address the crisis.

But he could not utter the word "state" and worried neurotically about the nationalisation of Northern Rock even when The Economist magazine was arguing for state ownership. Brown was also highly cautious about regulating banks, even when the government owned them.

Blair is not only wrong about Brown, but also wrong in his assessment of the crisis. When banks were pleading for government intervention on an epic scale, having railed against any state activity however tiny, something pretty big was happening. At the very least, the episode highlighted the benevolent power of the state in preventing several banks from going bankrupt.

He moves on to attack the introduction of a top rate of tax for high-earners even though every poll suggests the policy was popular. Blair argues also that Labour should have put up VAT as an alternative to the proposed rise in national insurance. He does not explain how a VAT rise would have helped the long-serving government win an election at a point when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were pretending they had no intention of making such a move.

Finally, Labour's great election winner warns of a "drift off to the left" but does not explain how his alternative would differ in any way from David Cameron's Conservative Party. Indeed, he suggests in relation to education policy that the Tories would be "at their best" without Liberal Democrats, some of whom he dismisses as "old Labour", whatever he means by that.

How does Blair address the fact that on many issues he is closer to Cameron's Conservatives than any other party including his own? He does so by claiming his anti-politics outlook is universal: "The policy space is now as much shared as in single occupation. The point is: that's the way it is!" That is the way it is for you, Tony, but not necessarily for the rest of the world. No wonder Gordon went bonkers.

Steve Richards's book on Gordon Brown and New Labour, 'Whatever it Takes', is published on 15 September by Fourth Estate

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