Broken Vows: Tony Blair, The Tragedy of Power: Book tells of enigmatic leader who sold democracy short

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting the then Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Picture: PA

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting the then Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Nick Kochan, who co-wrote his own book on the ex-Prime Minister’s financial dealings, reviews Tom Bower’s biography of Blair.

Author Tom Bower

Author Tom Bower - Credit: Archant

The sight of a former British prime minister knocking on the door of dictators seeking to extract the last dollar from despised despots must count as an indictment of our political system for two reasons.

The first is personal: how did we elect someone to the highest office with so little self-respect that they stoop so low?

Second, our system of patronage needs questioning: should prime ministers be able to leverage for their personal benefit their Rolodex of contacts once they have left office?

Rules govern conflicts of interest when politicians and civil servants move from government to the private sector. Should similar rules not govern the shameless exploitation of contacts accumulated in power. Should democracy be sold so short?

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Blair’s retreat from his initial convictions where he talked about the ‘many, not the few’ and ‘the third way’ (between the right and the left of politics), began as soon as he won his landslide victory in 1997.

The young barrister was in search of an ideology when he found some winning formulas.

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Modernisation, transparency in foreign policy, a free NHS at point of use, pushed the right buttons. But it became quickly clear that there was little behind the catch-words.

Back in 1997 as after the invasion of Iraq, the substance behind the fine phrases was absent.

This biography observes that Blair lacked patience with process and administration. As a result, he gave rise to, in Auden’s phrase (about the Thirties) a ‘low dishonest decade’, when the country lived on ‘feel-good’ until the economic crash knocked it sideways.

The claim to integrity that played behind so much of the clean-cut Blair’s appeal came unstuck early when he is shown to be dancing on the eye of a lawyer’s needle as he sought to wriggle out of the web set by Bernie Ecclestone. The Formula One magnate offered £2m donations to the Government in exchange for more favourable treatment of cigarette advertising on racing cars.

At the same time, the rich and famous like Richard Branson, Silvio Berlusconi, Cliff Richard and Labour millionaire Geoffrey Robinson realised they could buy their way into his affections by offering their exotic houses for his family holidays. Debts are set up for the upwardly mobile Blair and his wife Cherie that would later need repaying.

Coupled with the aspiration to be among the nouveau riche is a personal journey, fomented perhaps by his wife.

The move into the Catholic Church (an important element of his life omitted from this biography) raises questions about what drives him. If the Church was his real calling, could he also claim to have adopted the socialist, even democratic, mantel.

The misbegotten adventure in Iraq would be justified by ‘instinct’, rather than popular mandate or assessment of national self-interest. His adoption of Catholicism appears to have been accompanied by a new sense of grandness. When he sat at the high table with President Bush and decided to mount a war, the last roots with his party were severed.

His path up the Labour Party hierarchy had been terrifyingly quick and ruthless. That would also be a distant and no-doubt uncomfortable memory. The long-awaited Chilcot enquiry to be published shortly will show how the levers of power and opinion were pulled to take Britain into a tragic adventure whose bitter harvest we now reap.

By 2007, when he left a chalice poisoned by his own decisions and actions to a desperate and vacillating Gordon Brown, Blair had nothing to hold onto from his political past. Like a leader who had ticked the box saying ‘prime minister’, he was able to move on to the next career: Political Salesman and Millionaire.

He’s proving as effective at this as at politics. With a net worth of some £70m and 38 properties to featherbed his pension, one question remains about Blair.

He can tick the career boxes and claim a bank balance as big as some of his sponsors, but has it made him a ‘happy man’?

The cover of Bower’s book shows an anguished individual. Bower also tells of a personal life in turmoil, with affairs apparently mushrooming –most famously with Wendy Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s ex.

But this biography provides few answers beyond testifying to the complexity of a personality, that three civil servants who worked with him simply described as an ‘enigma’.

Broken Vows: Tony Blair, The Tragedy of Power, By Tom Bower, Faber and Faber £20.

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