I have been reading Tony Blair’s political autobiography, ‘A Journey,’ with a kind of morbid fascination. Fascination, because he was (pace Iraq) the most popular, telegenic and apparently engaging of British Prime Ministers, injecting a breath of fresh air into a moribund Labour Party and optimism and self-confidence into a young and revitalised Britain. Morbid, because it is hard not to conclude, as one wends one’s way page after self-congratulatory page through Tony’s buoyantly narcissistic and self-centred narrative, that he is a bit of a prick.
As he himself notes, and the dustcover blurb breathlessly reminds us, Tony (everyone calls him Tony, don’t they, as if he is just the bloke next door, washing his car on the weekend) entered Number 10 without ever having held government office: the job of Prime Minister was the only government job he ever had. And it shows.
Being Prime Minister is like being CEO of a large corporation, or President of the United States (a comparison Tony regularly, and aspirationally, makes). There is little evidence of cabinet government: every problem, big or small, comes down to Tony and ‘the team’ – the close advisers and political spin doctors he clutches to his chest and schemes with in ‘the den’ at Number 10. You would think, from the way he writes, that he did it all himself. The fact that there are regular references to others – so-and-so was ‘a lovely guy,’ ‘I really liked ‘so-and-so’, such-and-such was ‘a really great guy’ – does little to dispel the impression. The tone (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that of cheerleader-in-chief; an approving headmaster; a condescending ass. In the end, the only one of these who matters – and they are all lovely people, mind you – is the Leader, and that, of course, is Tony. Though all the while, off-stage, looms the direly glowering figure of Gordon Brown: the man who would be leader, and the man, therefore, constantly to be feared and watched.
Government for Tony, it would seem, is a collection of levers to be pulled, backsides to be kicked, colleagues and interests to be acknowledged but strategically manipulated, in the righteous impatience for ‘real’ change. There are targets for everything, measures of performance that would have done Jack Welch proud. Yet one gets the sense that if only Tony had served his time in government; if only he had had the experience of leading one of the great Departments of State; if he had had, not an overwhelming majority but a fractious coalition to manage and keep on board; if he had had, indeed a little less hubris and a lot more of a sense of collegiality; he might have turned his evident talents and energy into something more genuine, substantive, and lasting.
As it is (and admittedly I am only about half-way through) this book is less ‘Tony’s Odyssey’ than cautionary tale.