“Abdication” – or Political Assassination?
- Coup – Brown: “Nuffink to do wiv me, Guv”
- Coup … or … How To Kill The Leader Without Anyone Getting Blamed
“He’s been pushed out,” somebody very close to him tells me, “and it rankles.”
Comment at end
This article was published in The Times on June 23, 2007, four days before Tony Blair left Downing Street. It provides an insight into the thoughts of the PM, as seen over a two month period. (Personally, I still think it was more of an assassination, albeit slow and kind of subtle, so that some of us didn’t really notice – a kind of gentle, discreet murder.)
The abdication: a portrait of Blair’s last days
What does it feel like to give up such enormous power? With intimate access to moments of high political emotion Robert Crampton and photographer Nick Danziger chronicle the final days of Tony Blair’s decade as Prime Minister.
My summary of some points of interest: (the highlighted phrases are my highlights)
- We discuss his closeness to George Bush. Isn’t that what, ultimately, did him in? “That’s on the assumption it was Iraq that did me in,” he says. OK, so what did do you in? “That’s the problem with these late-night talks,” he sighs. “I don’t mean I have been ‘done in’, as it were, really.”
- But you said you’d serve a full third term? “If you do ten years you consider yourself fortunate to have got that far,” he says.
- “I don’t want to re-open old wounds.” “He’s been pushed out,” somebody very close to him tells me, “and it rankles.”
- Not really willing to leave yet, but he has read the runes.
- Blair: “The idea that Bill Clinton would have pursued a let’s-go-and-negotiate-with-these-people line is nonsense.”
- “I am putting soldiers in danger every day.”
- Blair is at the end still energetic, optimistic, clear of conscience.
- Blair says that being PM is “relentlessness … emotionally, physically and mentally draining.”
- Blair considers Mandelson & Campbell “geniuses”.
- Says of PMQs – “it’s all bollocks”.
- Blair: “People get tired of the face and tired of the voice”.
- Accepts the possibility of an assassination attempt, both at home and in new Mid-East envoy job.
- Hardly ever reads the papers or watches/listens to the news.
- 1st half of decade v 2nd half, Blair: “It was more I learnt how to translate my convictions. I realised I needed to be more radical.
- Blair says he’ll cope with re-entry to normal life.
- “We’ve got to start adjusting now to the fact that in ten years, probably, and 20 years, definitely, China will be the dominant power.
- “Politics is about [making] all sorts of compromises.”
- Blair modest on the new USA approach to Africa & Climate Change, David Hill has no such qualms. “It’s a triumph for Blairite diplomacy!”
- Blair is clearly smitten with Africa.
- Indeed, the reality of the “vanity tour” is a man with almost everything sitting in endless meetings trying to find ways to help people with almost nothing. “That HIV meeting was amazing!” he says on the plane home. “It’s an extraordinary story! We could save millions of lives. Millions.”
- He still wants to talk about how it’s business as usual. I wouldn’t say he’s in denial exactly, but I would say he doesn’t want to go, and he’s dealing with that by not dealing with it. “I’m not saying I couldn’t have gone on for a couple of years more, I could have,” he tells me. “But ten years is long enough.” I think if he could have stayed, he would have.
- I know there’s always been this idea about me that I’m fascinated by people who are wealthy. I’m not at all. If I was desperate to make money I would have done something else.
- Will he have to live with security for the rest of his life? “For the time being, at any rate.
- On becoming leader & PM: “I never, ever expected to be Prime Minister,” “Yeah. I was just the classic right person, right place, right time. Just very lucky.”
- “I haven’t done a book deal, no. I haven’t done any deals with anybody.”
- “I’ll need to have something with a real-life purpose to it, that’s for sure. In the end, such a thing will appear.” You really are an optimist, aren’t you? I say. You just think everything will be OK? “Yes, I suppose I do, really.”
START OF ARTICLE:
“The Boss is coming,” whispers a policeman urgently into his radio, back in Downing Street in April. Back then, Tony Blair still had two months of being the Boss to go. As of today, he’s the Boss till Wednesday.“So Robert,” he says, striding to the Daimler, “looking forward to this?” Oh yeah, I say, this is going to be fun, how are you? “I’m absolutely knackered.” We had met during the 2005 election. “You’ve worn better than I have,” he says, in one of several references to the ageing process. “God,” he mutters at one point, signing a picture of himself, “is that what I used to look like?” We drive to RAF Northolt, then fly to Glasgow. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are eight days away.
Blair is still a vigorous man: good shape, goes to the gym three times a week, careful around the biscuits laid out wherever he goes. He has the stamina to engage Colonel Gaddafi at midnight when the rest of us, Libyans and Brits, are yawning uncontrollably. But up close the effects of ten years’ stress and not enough sleep are clear. He looked younger than 44 in 1997; he looks 54 now. “The thing about the job,” he says, “is its utter relentlessness. It never leaves you. Never. It is emotionally, physically and mentally draining.”
His hair is mostly grey, and thinning. He pats it down before public appearances, checks “is it all right?” with an aide. In private, he’s always reaching for his specs: “I’m as a blind as a bat.” His people are protective: no photos while he’s being made up or miked up for TV. When he’s tired, or angry, Blair’s expression can take on a vulpine quality.
On the plane to Glasgow, however, Blair grins and chats, seems in a good mood, despite the opinion polls forecasting an SNP victory. Whatever the physical changes, emotionally he remains the untroubled character the British people fell for ten years ago. If the wing comes off this Dornier right now, I thought, of the 17 souls aboard, his would probably plunge to earth with the clearest conscience.
And he’d also believe he’d be going to a better place. One day, a book will analyse the impact of Blair’s faith on his premiership; it is already clear religion was central to two vital relationships. Ian Paisley decided to trust Blair once he realised he was serious about his faith. Shared Christianity cemented his alliance with George Bush. It also, I suspect, greatly aided his dealings with the Queen.
Blair, by the by, is keen to deny reports that Her Majesty and he don’t get on. “Complete nonsense,” he says. “Absolutely untrue. My relationship with the Queen is very open, very easy, very comfortable, and I’ve never had a bit of difficulty, not from the very beginning. Obviously when you’re a new Prime Minister, especially when she became Queen before you were born, you’re somewhat nervous of her. It’s got easier because we’ve got to know each other far better. She’s always been very good with me.”
Another salient point about Blair’s character is not so much what’s always said, that he’s a showman, a performer, an actor, but that he’s an optimist. An optimist almost to a fault. Early pictures show a sunny-natured child. “He’s the kind of person who always sees good in people,” one of his aides tells me. “It can be frustrating. During a reshuffle, some of us might say, ‘Get rid of so-and-so, he’s f****** useless,’ and he’ll say, ‘Oh, come on, he hasn’t been that bad.’” Blair doesn’t divide the world up into left and right, indeed he’s made an ideology out of not doing so. But optimist versus pessimist, that’s a meaningful dichotomy for him.
Back in Scotland in April, it being election time, Blair is wearing a red tie. It being a Wednesday, Prime Minister’s Questions just completed, he’s also sporting his lucky brogues. “I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve worn them for every PMQs. I’ve actually had them for 18 years.” Over the weeks, Blair’s uniform is always the same. I thought he might do that chino/polo thing in Basra with the boys, but mercifully, no: same dark-blue suit, white shirt, stripey tie.
A motorcade takes us to a community centre in Rutherglen east of Glasgow. It is packed with the Labour faithful. Blair grins his way through a succession of 90-year-olds who still go to all their branch meetings. “How ya doin’ darlin’, you’re wearin’ well, wan’ a picture?” Many of his supposed flaws are myths, but this one, that he’s a chameleon, moderating his speech to suit the audience, this one, if flaw it is, is real. With captains of industry, he’s precise, Latinate, the hyper-fluent ex-barrister as opposed to a halting consonant swallower.
Tommy McAvoy, the local MP, introduces “Tony! Blair! Our! Labour! Prime! Minister!” Afterwards, Blair speaks to Billy from the Kirkintilloch Herald. Billy is a Sunderland fan. “Keano’s been great, hasn’t he?” says Blair. “Niall Quinn’s a good friend.” It’s no wonder Blair prefers the regional press to the “feral beast” of the nationals.
Blair spends a lot of time talking to journalists. He does not, however, read much of what we write. In the two months I shadowed him, from Glasgow in April to last Sunday in London, with Belfast, Baghdad and Jo’burg in between, I saw him reading a newspaper only three times. After the Champions’ League final, he studied the player ratings in The Times.
On his third night in power in May 1997, he went out for dinner with Cherie. When they got back to Downing Street, “An official came up to me with the first editions. I said, ‘No thank you’.” He has not listened to The Today Programme since 1998. Doesn’t he watch the news? “No.” Newsnight? He laughs. To the Blair camp, Newsnight, and Today, and most of the BBC, is the enemy. More than three years on, the wounds of Gilligan-Campbell-Hutton have scarcely healed.
Blair says sometimes new people in his office make the mistake of telling him about something abusive in the press because, “The PM ‘ought to know’. But why read something that’s going to upset me?” Such isolation can lead, some might say, to self-delusion. “It’s why you think everything is going so well in Iraq!” one of his aides tells him, to much laughter.
Still in Scotland, out at his hotel by the Clyde, Blair changes into a T-shirt and trainers for dinner with a dozen or so insiders. David Hill, Campbell’s replacement as his communications chief, has arranged for a TV to be set up in the dining room. It’s Chelsea v Liverpool, Champions League semi-final, first leg. Chelsea win 1-0. “They’ll need more than one goal, won’t they?” says Blair. Turned out he was right.
For dinner Blair has the foie gras, the beef, a couple of glasses of red, doesn’t eat the pudding. We have this peculiar dialogue, peculiar in that a dozen other people are listening. “The hardest thing about leadership,” he tells me, “is learning to ignore the loudest voices.” Of support as well as opposition? I ask, mindful of the pop-star welcome he tends to receive. A chill descends on the gathering. “Yes, both, support and opposition,” says Blair. The temperature climbs back to normal.
“It’s been a real privilege,” he says, moving on to Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, both of whom he obviously misses, “to work with people who, in their own way, were geniuses. They were risk-takers, they always went for it. Peter was a real loss to the Government. The DTI was in mourning when he went.” Of Campbell, Blair chuckles when he remembers his pugnacious adviser gunning for the Beeb in the summer of 2003. “I said, ‘Alastair, you’re supposed to be the one clearing up after me.’”
The following morning, he is in his suite writing a speech. I hang about across the corridor, in another room hired as an office for the two travelling “garden girls” (secretaries) from No 10. Press, protocol and policy aides mill about. “I think it’s best if we get him dressed,” says one of them. Blair, and his wife, when she’s around, live even their private lives mostly in public, especially on the road.
He wants five minutes in the sun before leaving. Thus does a bizarre little parade troop out into the hotel garden: Blair, me, photographer, policeman. I mention Leo, his fourth child. What’s he like? “He’s a lovely lad, actually,” says Blair, as if thinking about it for the first time. “Downing Street and Chequers, it’s the only life he’s known.”
On it goes. The motorcade sweeps around Glasgow to a community centre in Neilston. Blair makes his anti-SNP stump speech. “It’s an old-fashioned notion to wrench countries apart,” he tells the crowd, employing one of his favourite bogey words. Indeed it is a paradox of the man that he possesses such old-fashioned good manners and yet regards that epithet as an argument-clincher. In Scotland, “Nationalism is an old-fashioned idea.” In Ireland, “The conflict was old-fashioned.” In Europe, “Euroscepticism is old-fashioned.”
On the train from Barhead to Kilmarnock, an ex-soldier, Raymond Forrest, slightly the worse for drink, plonks himself down next to the PM. They chat amiably for a while. “He’s the best Prime Minister we’ve ever had!” Mr Forrest tells the assembled press. Meanwhile, David Hill has taken against a local cameraman. “I don’t f****** trust him,” he whispers to his boss, “he’ll have his microphone on.” Blair stares ahead and nods. The shadow of “Yo Blair!”, the two words that probably sealed his fate last summer, lingers on.
I can’t help noticing Blair’s watch is a cheap model. Weeks later, in the kerfuffle over George Bush’s disappearing timepiece in Albania, I learn that Silvio Berlusconi’s watch cost £270,000, Vladimir Putin’s £30,000 and Blair’s £63.26. “It’s an ordinary sports watch,” he says, “I’m not big on the trappings of power.” Won’t he miss the gilt? The grandeur? The windows three times the height of a man? “When you’re working, you’re working,” he says, “you don’t take it in.”
A week later, another Wednesday, we’re in the Prime Minister’s office in the Commons shortly before Prime Minister’s Questions. Blair hates PMQs. “Every Wednesday, three minutes to 12, it’s the worst part of the week.” In fact, I don’t think he likes Parliament in general. Certainly, he’s been criticised for not going there enough. I can’t say I blame him. It’s a pompous place, dark and doomy, pumped up on cheap theatrics and self-regard.
And it’s a lose-lose deal, PMQs. Perform well, like Hague, and nobody beyond Westminster takes any notice. Perform badly, like Duncan Smith, and you’re toast. Beforehand, Blair looks harried, his voice testy. Afterwards, he sits at a long table eating a plain bread roll. Facing him, his people stand and tell him how well he’s done. “It’s an Evening Standard 3-0 to Blair!” says David Hill. Blair shrugs. Is he bovvered? I don’t think so. “It’s always better when it’s over.” It nearly is. Then, in early May, he had another five or six PMQs to go. Now, his last is on Wednesday. After that it’s the Palace, and off. Won’t he miss the cut-and-thrust? “If I do it’ll be a classic case of not remembering what it was really like.” He looks at me. “Ah well,” he says, “it’s all bollocks.”
After lunch, Blair has a poignant encounter with Lord Mason, 83, Roy Mason as was, elected to Parliament the year Blair was born, now a grandee of the Labour Right. Until this chat, I’m amazed to discover, Blair has never met Mason, even though, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Seventies, he was a player in the history of the Troubles. “They were hard times,” says Blair. “You did a good job over there.” Mason, moist-eyed, acknowledges the compliment. “You’ve done a good job, too, Prime Minister,” he says, choking up.
Indeed so. Six days later, Tuesday May 8 finds Blair at Stormont Castle for the swearing-in of the Rev Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness, former chief of staff of the Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA, as his deputy. Bertie Ahern, John Hume and Teddy Kennedy, inter alia, are in attendance. It’s a miraculous day, not least because Ian Paisley is a picture of charm and benevolence in his 82nd year. Reputations, one is reminded, can be deceptive.
“I’ve always liked Ian in private,” says Blair. “He told me, ‘If it is the right thing to do, I will do it’. So did Adams and McGuinness. I believed them.” Therein lies the settlement. Watching Newsnight back in London, whatever the PM’s circle thinks of the BBC, it is hard to imagine how TV coverage could get any better. The North has a lasting peace deal with everybody signed up, and Blair is getting the credit. “Of course it’s good to be vindicated,” he had admitted on the flight back, looking down at East London from the air. “Mind you, I’m just passing the Dome.”
Two days later, the scene shifts to a back room in Trimdon Labour Club, county Durham. The Prime Minister stands off to one side near the shuttered bar rehearsing his resignation speech. It’s hard to judge the mood; no one quite knows if they should be happy or sad. They get no lead from the curiously detached principal. My guess is he can’t believe he’s doing it.
Outside, lining the walk from the Daimler to the Labour Club, are local worthies in their Sunday best, bright red jackets for the women, blazers for the men. Strange as it may seem, for those who see only the Fettes-and-Oxford boy, Blair feels comfortable here in the Labour heartland among the sons and daughters of the men Harold Macmillan, Earl of (nearby) Stockton called the salt of the earth. Blair’s parents had humble origins; he is by birth and upbringing a northerner, a northerner who married a working-class Scouser. “I’ve never been tribal in my politics,” he says, “but I owe the Labour Party everything I’ve been able to achieve. I will always vote for the Labour candidate.”
It’s worth noting that by and large it is the metropolitan so-called liberal, so-called elite, and through them, elements of the wider middle class, that has deserted Blair. The working class has stuck by him. The deputy leadership contest is an interesting microcosm of this: the two Blairites are Hazel Blears, daughter of a Salford fitter, and Alan Johnson, former postman. The two Brownites are Harriet Harman, niece of the Countess of Longford, and Hilary Benn, son of the man who used to be Viscount Stansgate.
“Are me flies done up?” Blair asks a local party official. “I wouldn’t have telt you if they weren’t,” comes the reply. Blair roars with laughter. It would be surprising if there were nothing of the north about him, and there is, not least in the physical awkwardness he displays around his wife in public. When he pays tribute to her in his speech, she stares at him adoringly, he doesn’t look at her. She cries, clings to him afterwards. He looks embarrassed.
Later, after I-did-what-I-thought-was-right, we go back to Myrobella, the Blairs’ house in Trimdon. There are 30 or so people there, smart-suited Geordies and Downing Street insiders. The No 10 contingent crowds into the sitting room to watch the lunchtime TV coverage. Blair stays in the kitchen with the locals. “I feel more relaxed now that I’ve crossed the Rubicon,” he says.
The house is a warren, narrow corridors, dark rooms, in one of which a spread has been laid out: cheese cubes, pickled onions, crisps, sandwiches, some rather nice meat pies. In the kitchen are bottles of Speckled Hen and red wine. Blair drifts about clutching a bottle of water, looking lost. “You should have a glass of wine after your ‘Big Speech’,” a young friend of his daughter, a student, teases him. They reminisce about an April Fool’s Day when this same girl played a trick on the Prime Minister. He shakes his head, the gullible, indulgent dad.
A removal is in the air, although they’re not selling Myrobella, not yet anyway. A dresser is labelled “Maybe”, a mirror is labelled “Yes”. Kathryn Blair tells her friends she’s come up to help her mum sort out the house. Cherie Blair wants advice on some furniture upstairs. “Oh yeah,” says her husband, again as if thinking about it for the first time, “what am I going to do with all my stuff?” It’s said he can master a brief like the barrister he was, but he’s not a details man at heart, he relies on intuition. He has not, he says, planned his post-premiership life. “I’d like to think there is a purpose in life for me out there that is as exciting as anything I’ve done,” is as far as he’s got.
Back in May, it was still all big-picture stuff. Maybe, after walking with presidents and potentates, moguls and masters of the universe for a decade, it always will be. Blair’s geopolitical grasp is cause and consequence of his political longevity, and I think it helps explain the divergence between the electorate and the man after ten years. “I’m spending as much of my time on the Doha round of the WTO as anything at the moment,” he says, but do we, the press, want to write about that? Do you, the public, want to read it? I don’t think so. As a journalist, the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation negotiations is death.
But as Prime Minister, the Doha round of the WTO, that’s what you spend your time doing, telephoning the president of Mexico or whoever, trying to finesse a clause that has the potential to, as Blair puts it, “increase world GDP by billions”. You come to power because you can read the people, but through the exercise of power, and through the rarefication of your day-to-day life, you grow apart from the people. And also, as Blair acknowledges, “They get tired of the face and tired of the voice. Past a certain point, it almost doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. People get tired and say, ‘Time to move on’.”
The day after he resigned, Blair flew to Paris. On the way to Downing Street to join the convoy, on Holborn in Central London, who should I see but Gordon Brown, stalking along the pavement, bodyguards, photographers walking backwards, the works. Wasting no time, he was on his way to launch his leadership campaign. He looks cross. I saw Brown one other time, too, coming out of Blair’s den in Downing Street. He looked cross then, too. The Prime Minister looks apprehensive around his brooding successor, as if he has to keep him sweet to avoid a scene.
After a quick trip to Wembley to unveil Bobby Moore’s statue (“Are you coming to the Cup Final?” asks Sir Trevor Brooking. “Er, I’ve got something on,” mumbles Blair) it’s the Queen’s Flight (silver teapots, walnut-veneer tables, crisper anti-macassars than one is used to) from Northolt to Villacoublay. And thence HM Ambassador’s splendiferous Residence (complete with tennis court) on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré for tea and lemon sponge before a final meeting with another man on the way out, President-for-not-much-longer Jacques Chirac. The diplomatic corps fret over Gordon Brown’s presumed antagonism towards free-spending FCO posh boys. “He’s going to plough up our tennis court and stuff the earth down the Ambassador’s mouth,” says one mandarin. “Scots, eh?” says another, “Always smoking grudges rather than joints.”
We drive the 200 yards to the Elysée Palace. “He can be insufferable, Chirac,” an adviser tells me, “but he can be very entertaining. He’s supposed to be the embodiment of France, so he’s either standing on his dignity or going round the countryside feeling cow’s arses.” Today Chirac, gnarled, tanned, his hair rakishly long at the back, is, like Paisley earlier in the week, on fine patriarchal form. “Ah, bienvenue messieurs,” he greets one and all, his head poking forward like a turtle.
But Chirac isn’t the man Blair has really come to see. Nicolas Sarkozy, bouncy, glowing, a bonsai Sylvester Stallone, is in the neighbouring arrondissement, parked in an empty government building in this interlude between his presidential victory and his inauguration. “I like him very much,” Blair tells me. Blair very much wanted Sarkozy to win, even though Ségolène Royal, his opponent, was the Socialist candidate. Similarly, he wanted Angela Merkel to beat Gerhard Schröder in 2005, even though Schröder was the left-of-centre option. “These right-wing governments are so much easier to deal with,” one of his aides said. “You know where you stand.”
Blair comes out of the meeting with Sarkozy to hear Cherie has been on le blower. “I can talk to her later,” he says. “Er, she’s going out,” says an aide. Blair looks gormless, as he occasionally can. “Prends mon bureau et parles à ta femme,” offers Sarkozy, clapping his new buddy on the back. “I know the family problems,” he adds, breaking into faltering English.
Later it’s off to a Thai-French fusion place by the Seine. The diners, upmarket, wealthy metropolitan types, the sort of people who in London switched to Labour in 1997 and now revile Blair at dinner parties, stand up and applaud as the pair depart. “Au revoir et merci bien,” says Blair, embracing the flyweight Rocky in the Parisian night. Blair enjoys my Stallone comparison. “Yeah, Sarko’s a bit like that,” he chuckles.
On the return flight, I say the end-of-an-era judgments in the press are all reaching the same verdict on his decade: not enough conviction in the first half, too much in the second. “If I was to say what changed about me,” he says, switching to the careful sub-clausal style he adopts when the tape is running, “it was not that I was an opinion-poll politician in 1997 and I became a conviction politician, although there’s an element of truth in that. It was more I learnt how to translate my convictions. I realised I needed to be more radical. If you look at the 1997 pledge card now,” he says, “the extraordinary thing is how modest it was. Modest to the point of being almost footling.”
When he says “radical”, doesn’t he just mean “right-wing”? “I think it is a radical-left proposition to say someone should have choice within the NHS in the same way as if they had the money they could buy private healthcare,” he says. “The reason why Labour was out of power for so long,” he warns, “and will go back out of power if it doesn’t understand this, is if you end up regarding greater choice as right-wing, even though you have that choice irrespective of wealth, then you are on the wrong side of history.”
I say nevertheless most people on the Left do regard greater choice in public services as right-wing, just as when he ended his speech in Sedgefield by saying Britain was the greatest country on earth, they think that’s right-wing, too. “But I’m the Prime Minister!” he says. “If I don’t regard Britain as the greatest nation on earth, what the hell am I doing leading it?” Still, I say, the usual left-of-centre view would be that the greatest country on earth is…? “What?” he interrupts, “Sweden?” We laugh. No, I was going to say France, I reply, at least France before Sarkozy gets to work.
We discuss his closeness to George Bush. Isn’t that what, ultimately, did him in? “That’s on the assumption it was Iraq that did me in,” he says. OK, so what did do you in? “That’s the problem with these late-night talks,” he sighs. “I don’t mean I have been ‘done in’, as it were, really.” But you said you’d serve a full third term? “If you do ten years you consider yourself fortunate to have got that far,” he says. “I don’t want to re-open old wounds.” “He’s been pushed out,” somebody very close to him tells me, “and it rankles.”
Back to Bush. “I’m not going to apologise for having a relationship with someone I’ve found to be straight and true to his word.” Isn’t Bush fantastically right-wing? “Look,” says Blair, “I wouldn’t agree with most American politicians on the death penalty. I think gay rights are a big deal. I introduced a law banning handguns. But I can’t understand how removing the Taleban and Saddam Hussein, who stood for the most repressive reactionary values imaginable, I can’t see how that’s right-wing. And when people say to me, ‘Bush is a bog-standard ultra-right-wing Republican’, I say, ‘Well, who’s got a black woman as Secretary of State?’”
On another occasion, in a hotel in Birmingham weeks later, we pick up the same theme. Why, I ask, are so many Europeans so keen to blame George Bush for the ills of the world? “Stops them having to think,” says Blair. Because he’s from Texas? A Republican? Religious? “Uh-huh,” says Blair, eating a toasted sandwich. “All of the above. To be fair there are people who won’t be anti-American but are anti-George Bush but [they] have to get real. The idea that Bill Clinton would have pursued a let’s-go-and-negotiate-with-these-people line is nonsense.”
Why does the Left have such a problem with America? “All the obvious things. Power, free enterprise, capitalism, politicians talking about God. America,” he adds, “also has a pride in itself that is very visible. They’re not ashamed of their patriotism.” I mention meeting Bruce Springsteen, how he flew the flag in his front garden. Blair, until then half-distracted by his sandwich, suddenly switches on. “What? You’ve interviewed Springsteen? What’s he like? I’ve been listening to a compilation of his in the gym.”
After Paris, our next encounter is at the Royal suite at Heathrow for a flight to Kuwait City and thence, the following day, Baghdad. This trip is the “something on” Blair had mentioned to Trevor Brooking at Wembley. Tired, tieless, having flown in overnight from Washington, Blair wanders away from the knot of officials and reporters to call his youngest son from the Tarmac . On the plane, they don’t make you do up your seatbelt or straighten your chair for take-off. Blair says he’ll cope with re-entry to normal life. His first flight as an ordinary punter should put that to the test: he hasn’t had to deal with immigration or customs or anything below first class for a decade.
At the British embassy in Baghdad (or the fortified, relatively safe bit of Baghdad called the Green Zone) Blair goes round the room in what is known in the trade as a grip and grin. There’s juice and tea laid out. Diplomats and soldiers take pictures on their mobiles. “Do the majority of people just want to get on with their lives?” he asks. “There is a functioning Iraqi business sector, isn’t there?” “They’re starting from scratch, aren’t they?” The questions plead for a positive response. The answers are polite, non-committal, neutral.
A man called Jason tells the Prime Minister that a rocket hit the car park 20 yards away, at 10.30 when he, Blair, had been due to arrive. Blair doesn’t seem interested. “I’m still shaking,” Jason tells me, “I had to put the fire out.” One gutted vehicle and the wrecked rear end of another tell the story. “They’re giving him a fond farewell,” says our security escort, an ex-RUC man. After four years bodyguarding here, this chap calls Iraq “Northern Ireland on steroids. With sunshine.” “Mortar attacks are happening every day,” an irritable Blair tells a press conference an hour later. “A minority of people want to destroy progress.”
A week later, during the interview in the Birmingham hotel, I ask Blair why he hadn’t worn body armour in Iraq (officials, press and military all had). “The politicians there don’t wear it,” he replies. “If they don’t, why should I?” I press the point. “It’s not a bravura thing,” he says, “I think if something’s gonna happen, it’s not gonna do you a great deal of good. It’s far more likely I’ll shake hands with a group of kids today and somebody does something crazy than on a day in Iraq.” Run that by me again, I say. “I don’t mean it’s more dangerous in Redditch than Baghdad,” he says. “I mean if I am to be assassinated it’s more likely to be in circumstances where I am out mixing with people but people aren’t anticipating danger.”
Back in Basra, or Basra airport to be exact, Blair meets a group of young subalterns. “Are we actually killing the enemy?” he asks. Oh yes, comes the enthusiastic reply. “The boys’ morale is always high when the bullets are flying,” a very senior officer tells me. A few minutes later, Blair having gone next door to talk to the brass, we’re all lying on the floor as a mortar blast shakes the ceiling. The travelling media now have their story. “This trip,” one broadcaster announces on the Hercules back to Kuwait, “has been a PR disaster. And he didn’t even have to come.”
Ah, but he did. “I feel very strongly about this,” he says. “I am putting soldiers in danger every day.” The attacks, he says, “are frustrating. There is a tremendous incentive for the terrorists because they know they can dominate the Western media with pictures of the carnage without anyone saying, ‘The bastards who did this should be stood up to.’ Instead, it’s, ‘Well, the thing’s a mess’.” How long will it take for it not to be a mess? I ask. “I dunno. You can’t tell. It will resolve itself, it just will. People will get sick of the killing.”
Doesn’t he ever just wish he hadn’t done it? He laughs. “I believe you would have had to have dealt with Saddam at some point.” Hasn’t Iraq made it harder to counter Iran, which now looks like a far bigger threat to peace in the region than Saddam ever was? “We tried before the strategy of backing Iraq to curtail Iran,” he says, “and a fat lot of good it did us.”
Blair says history will judge him on Iraq. That judgment will depend on what history makes of his belief that Britain’s interests are best served by preserving the alliance with the United States at any cost, at the cost, at any rate, of Blair’s own premiership. The US decided it would depose Saddam. He decided early on, irrespective, I think, of WMD or human rights, that he had to be involved. He more or less says as much. “If you want to make a proper criticism of us,” he tells me, “it is that following September 11, we still thought, ‘We’ll knock this on the head in Afghanistan and get rid of Saddam’ [my italics], and it will be dealt with, and the fact is it was a lot deeper than that.”
Ultimately, Blair made a long-term calculation. “China’s population is double that of Europe and America combined,” he told several audiences over these past two months. “We’ve got to start adjusting now to the fact that in ten years, probably, and 20 years, definitely, China will be the dominant power. If Europe’s not careful,” he warns, “they’ll wake up one day and find America’s moved on, that they’ve said, ‘Let’s look out the other way’ [to the Pacific]. If America and Europe grow apart, I don’t think disastrous would be too strong a word. In the end, Americans and Europeans share the same values.”
A week after Iraq, we’re on a plane to Tripoli, switching there to Gaddafi’s personal jet, swiftly named “World of Leather” by the press pack, thanks to its grey and red Seventies decor, for a flight down to Sirte, and then a long drive into the desert. We eventually track the Colonel down to a large tent tethered to concrete blocks next to a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, all four roads leading off into the infinity of the Sahara. The Libyan dictator is wearing a chocolate-brown pant suit in what looks like crushed Draylon, plus a net curtain in matching shade thrown over one shoulder.
Gaddafi does a lot of the talking. “He’s part philosopher, part very tough political leader,” Blair says later. “His analysis of the Arab world was interesting.” Does he ever get bored in these meetings? “Sometimes, yeah. But I have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. You’ve got to have sufficient humility to learn from what people say.”
Of course, on the logic of Iraq, Blair should be invading this place rather than reviewing a guard of honour. He says democracy is a universal concept, yet in his 38 years in power, the Colonel hasn’t been overly troubled by elections, has he? “That’s absolutely right, and there’s Saudi Arabia. We’ve got good relations with them,” says Blair. “Politics is about [making] all sorts of compromises.”
What does he feel, sitting down with Gaddafi, the mad dog of the desert as was? “What I feel is ten years ago dialogue was impossible, and ten years on he’s given up his WMD, he’s opening his country up [BP are also in town concluding a lucrative oil exploration deal] and he’s co-operating in the fight against terrorism.” And still locking people up who disagree with him? “And I’m still making the point that I totally disagree with that.”
“Look!” says Gaddafi, pointing skywards as the pair finally emerge from the tent. “The moon!” “Ah,” says Blair politely, “that’s why you, er, ah, come out here, is it?” The colonel nods. “You cannot see in the city,” he explains. They hug, and the motorcade speeds off across the darkened desert to the airport.
The following day, Blair lands in Sierra Leone, a country that provided him as a youngster with his first experience, albeit second-hand, of Africa. “My dad came here as an external examiner to the university in the Sixties. He’d come back and talk to me about it; I was a teenager. He said it was an extraordinary place. The first black person I ever saw in Durham was a friend of my dad’s from Sierra Leone.”
Blair is clearly smitten with Africa. “One of my best friends at university was a Ugandan. I got interested in politics partly because of development issues. It’s an amazing continent, isn’t it? Somebody told me you could fit the whole of the US in the Sahara!” He turns to me. “Can that be true?” Er, no, I reply. I don’t think it can be. Something else he says implies that new technology can irrigate the whole of the Sahara. The place must bring out the idealist in him. If you like Blair, you’ll believe this man can do good in Africa. If you don’t like him, his missionary zeal here probably crystallises all your misgivings.
Still, in Sierra Leone, thanks to British action, Blair’s idealism saved a lot of lives. He receives a hero’s welcome. “Hello Tony Blair, how are you?” the schoolchildren lining the roads sing, to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It, “Hello Tony Blair, how are you? We are very glad you came and we hope you feel the same, hello Tony Blair, how are you?” “Sceptics are calling this a vanity tour, how do you respond?” Sky’s Adam Boulton asks Blair. “This country had been taken over by gangsters hacking off people’s hands,” says Blair. “Now it’s got elections, growth, stability. It’s not perfection, but it’s a darned sight better than it was.”
Blair says he’s here to “stoke up” the issue of Africa in advance of the G8 in Germany. “President Bush will by the time he leaves office have trebled American aid to Africa,” he says. “You may say it’s not nearly enough, well it isn’t nearly enough, but the fact is he’s done it.” Bush has also just announced a thawing in his administration’s stance on climate change. Can he, Blair, claim some of the credit? “If you’re in partnership with a country like America,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “you have the opportunity significantly to influence policy. But you’ve gotta be in the partnership.” David Hill has no such qualms. “It’s a triumph for Blairite diplomacy!” he tells me.
In Mahara, a village across the bay from Freetown, Blair sits in a leaking hut in a thunderstorm, listening to people telling him, “We don’t want to be left behind any more.” The village has no electric power, the room is virtually dark. Maybe by now I’ve gone native, but this seems like the very opposite of a photo opportunity. The following day, a couple of thousand miles to the south, Blair is at the Harriet Shezi Children’s Clinic in Soweto. He is in the township to learn about HIV/Aids. Indeed, the reality of the “vanity tour” is a man with almost everything sitting in endless meetings trying to find ways to help people with almost nothing. “That HIV meeting was amazing!” he says on the plane home. “It’s an extraordinary story! We could save millions of lives. Millions.”
Back in London, last Sunday afternoon, Blair and I meet for a final interview. The pubs on Whitehall are full of old soldiers waiting for the Falklands parade. Here in the Prime Minister’s flat in Downing Street, but for a vacuum cleaner droning somewhere in the background, all is quiet. Packing cases line the landing; naked picture hooks on the walls tell of the impending move. This is the Blairs’ last weekend here.
“I’m going to Rome on Saturday,” he says. He’s met the Pope before, why is he going now? “I’m slightly nervous talking about it because I won’t have met him by the time this is published.” Is he going to convert to Catholicism? “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s difficult, things aren’t always as resolved as they might be.” On Sunday, Blair will attend the conference at which Gordon Brown officially becomes Labour Party leader. Next weekend, it’ll be goodbye to Chequers: the outgoing Prime Minister is, by tradition, allowed one final weekend there.
We go into the sitting room: faded gold wallpaper, swaggy curtains, two facing lemon sofas, lots of family snaps and sketches, several guitar cases in the corner. I say, look, I know you didn’t want to discuss it in April, but four days after this is published, you’re on your way. I need something on what you’re doing next, specifics, like where are you going to spend Wednesday night? “I don’t know actually,” he replies, “I may well go to the constituency.” So the Connaught Square house isn’t habitable? “It will be shortly.” Builders overrun, have they? “I think they’ve been pretty good.”
He still wants to talk about how it’s business as usual. I wouldn’t say he’s in denial exactly, but I would say he doesn’t want to go, and he’s dealing with that by not dealing with it. “I’m not saying I couldn’t have gone on for a couple of years more, I could have,” he tells me. “But ten years is long enough.” I think if he could have stayed, he would have.
“Last September [when the mini-coup by Labour MPs brought forward his retirement plans], even people who are friendly to me were saying, ‘Isn’t it better that you just stand down?’ I think in these nine months I’ve achieved a lot. The health service reforms will stay, the education reforms will stay, the pensions legislation is almost through, the energy white paper is published.”
Very good, I say, and what will you do with the rest of your life? “I will keep an interest in climate change and Africa,” he says, “and I am interested in the interfaith idea and would like to devote real time to it.” Will he set up a foundation? “I would like to establish such a thing. Interfaith dialogue is something I’m really committed to.” (No doubt his audience with the Holy Father will touch on that). “And,” he adds, “I will retain a strong interest in the Middle East.” Are people offering him jobs? “Not to me personally, but there are people who talk to people. You can’t start agreeing to do jobs when you’re still doing the job you’re doing.”
How about lectures? Will he do them? “I don’t know. Plenty of people do.” Anything arranged? “Nothing specific. Obviously, once I leave I’ll have to knuckle down and work out how I’m going to have a source of income. I know it sounds odd because people think I must have worked everything out for the future, but I haven’t. And I’ve had good advice, from serious people who’ve been through this, saying it’s best to give it some space and time.” Who? Clinton? “I’m sorry, they give you advice on a private basis.
“The one thing I couldn’t do,” he adds, “is potter around the garden or even just concentrate on making money. I know there’s always been this idea about me that I’m fascinated by people who are wealthy. I’m not at all. If I was desperate to make money I would have done something else. I don’t want to be prissy about it, I’m very happy to be comfortably off and I want to stay that way. I’m like anybody else, I love to go to a nice restaurant, have a nice holiday, make sure my family’s fine.” As of Wednesday, your income will drop, right? “Yes, it will, yes, of course.” You go back to the basic MP’s salary? “Yes.” Plus a pension? “To be frank, I’m not totally sure.”
Will he have to live with security for the rest of his life? “For the time being, at any rate. I think it’ll become easier at the margins.” How have the past ten years affected his family? “We’re a very strong family and we’ve held together really well,” he says. “I’m incredibly proud of Cherie and the children for being so supportive of me, but it’s bound to take a toll, isn’t it, on the time you can spend with them.”
His eldest, Euan, is a postgraduate at Yale. His son Nicky has just finished at Oxford and is to train to be a teacher. His daughter Kathryn, “will go to university, she’s still working out her choices.” And little Leo is playing on a Game Boy in the hall in a pair of bright red underpants. “Touch wood,” Blair leans forward and taps the coffee table, “they seem fine. But who knows?”
Right on cue, Cherie Blair walks in. She’s wearing something from that grey area where leisurewear meets pyjamas. My relationship with Mrs Blair has not quite taken off up to now. I’d gone over to introduce myself at Myrobella. I’m in your house, I’d said, and you don’t know who I am. “I know who you are,” she’d replied brusquely, “I just thought you were being rude.” I’d decided, fair enough, she’s had a rough ride and isn’t minded, at this late stage, to distinguish between members of my trade. But here, right at the death, she’s friendly enough, bantering away. “Do you mind going to get some clothes on,” asks her husband mildly, “and come down to the den for half-past?” “Yes, I promise I’ll look respectable,” says Cherie. “Darling: half-past,” says Blair more firmly. She leaves. “We’ve got this Falklands thing,” he explains to me.
“I never, ever expected to be Prime Minister,” he had told me on another occasion. “I didn’t think someone from my background could lead the Labour Party. I thought Gordon would be leader and I’d be chancellor. And if Gordon had become leader in 1992, that’s what would have happened.” But when John Smith died in 1994, he took his chance? “Yeah. I was just the classic right person, right place, right time. Just very lucky.”
Almost out of time, I ask if he’ll write a book. “Um, possibly. At some point.” Has he done a book deal? “I haven’t done a book deal, no. I haven’t done any deals with anybody.” Has he kept a diary? “No,” he says, and adds, trying to be helpful. “I’ll need to have something with a real-life purpose to it, that’s for sure. In the end, such a thing will appear.” You really are an optimist, aren’t you? I say. You just think everything will be OK? “Yes, I suppose I do, really,” says the Prime Minister, ushering me towards the door.