Jonathan Powell – Blair’s Inside Man
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- Oliver Kamm says ‘no’ to talks with Al Qaeda
- From Ian Katz: Powell on Blair & Brown/EU Presidency/Powell on Brown
- Muslims award Powell the “Dhimmi Award”
- My thoughts on the Powell story
- Unhealthy Left Wing McCarthyism
[Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff for 12 years – and one of the most powerful people in the government. In his first ever interview, he talks to Ian Katz about life at No 10, the laughs, the regrets and what he found irritating about his boss.]
Article below by Ian Katz, The Guardian, Saturday March 15th, 2008
In the early hours of June 29 last year, barely two days after Tony Blair had told the House of Commons, “That’s it. The end”, and Gordon Brown had stood on the doorstep of No 10 Downing Street reciting his school motto, two Mercedes saloons packed with petrol, nails and gas cylinders were found in the West End of London. A few miles away, Jonathan Powell woke up and heard a report of the attempted bombing on the radio, “and I thought, oh my God, the police haven’t called me, no one’s called me, I must call someone. Then I thought, hang on, I don’t have to do anything about this, it’s not my responsibility… it’s a bit like those cartoon characters where you go running off the edge of a cliff and you carry on running and you haven’t noticed that you’ve gone over the edge of the cliff. And then you go zooming down…”
The shock was all the more extreme because for the previous 10 years Powell had been at the epicentre of power. As Tony Blair’s chief of staff, he was the ultimate fixer, the prime minister’s first line of defence against events, baby-catcher in chief. When things went wrong, people called Powell. His wife, international affairs journalist Sarah Helm, used to say she knew when he was on his way home because the phone started ringing off the hook. “Eventually I turned my phone to mute because I couldn’t stand it ringing all the time.”
Powell was much more than Blair’s chief firefighter, however. With a background as a high-flying diplomat, he was a powerful influence on foreign policy and, from the start of the Blair era, the prime minister’s eyes, ears and voice in Northern Ireland. In the end, he was Downing Street’s great survivor, the most senior figure both to enter and leave No 10 with his master. If Alastair Campbell was the mercurial all-rounder, blasting his way to a flashy 50 before being caught off an ill-judged stroke, Powell was the cool-headed, circumspect opener quietly toiling to a gritty 100 before running out of partners at the crease.
Powell’s relationship with Blair may have lacked the intimacy of the former PM’s longstanding friendships with Campbell, Anji Hunter and Peter Mandelson, but his staying power alone brought remarkable influence. In the post-Campbell era, he was almost certainly the most powerful unelected official in the country, some would say the third most powerful altogether after his boss and Gordon Brown. “He was the grown-up,” one No 10 insider recalls. “In cabinet meetings he was the one that passed TB notes. He would be the one who would whisper something into his ear, and if he was doing something big, TB would say, ‘Has Jonathan read this first?'” Mandelson puts it like this: “He was the PM’s echo. People could rely on knowing that what Jonathan said was what the PM thought or wanted. He was the one constant, the only one of the PM’s inner circle who didn’t drop out, was excluded, fired or whatever.”
If Powell missed the adrenaline and intensity of Downing Street at first, any hankerings were soon submerged by a deep sense of relief. “Sometimes, when I was doing that job, it did feel like an egg-and-spoon race over about 10,000 miles with burning coals and broken glass under your feet, and getting to the end with the egg still on the spoon was just an enormous feeling of relief.”
Somehow, at the end of every bruising 14-hour day, after fielding the countless late-night phone calls and grinding through the briefing papers with which he had cycled home (“I was worried I’d be mugged as, quite illegally, I was carrying huge amounts of classified material in my backpack”), Powell found the energy to keep a diary. There are 17 bound volumes of them, each entry recorded in longhand on an unlined page, that gives them an endearing, schoolboyish quality. They are a publisher’s fantasy – a cerebral version of the Campbell diaries, you imagine, that run right through to the darkest days of the third term. We will not be reading them any time soon, though. Renowned for his discretion, Powell is adamant he will never publish his diaries.
Instead, he has mined them to produce an instant history of the Irish peace process, seen from the vantage point of one of its central players. It’s a breathless canter of a book, reminiscent of its author’s personality. The action lurches from secret meetings to all-night, knife-edge negotiating sessions to last-minute compromises and back again.
The book contains a number of revelations about the backstage manoeuvring that went on behind the proclamations and photocalls (you can read about them in the Guardian next week), but it is the little details, recorded by Powell the diarist, that offer some of the most compelling glimpses into the negotiations – and beyond into the workings of the Blair machine. In 1997, we encounter Gerry Adams trying to engage David Trimble in conversation across a urinal only to be told to “grow up”; we hear Powell and Campbell “in fits of giggles” after Blair ad libs his now famous line about “the hand of history”; we glimpse Blair, Mandelson and Powell trying to discuss Northern Island while minding the young Leo in the Downing Street flat: “I spent the evening trying to get him off to sleep by jiggling him around while Tony burned the garlic bread and served up a rather inedible lasagne.”
Two anecdotes capture the remarkable, almost surreal distance travelled by the key players in the Northern Ireland drama during their 10 years of negotiations. Recounting his first encounter with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in 1997, Powell describes how he decided against shaking their hands “on principle”. Fast-forward to 2006, and Powell relates how Adams called him at the height of the cash-for-honours investigation “to express his solidarity and ask if Tony and I would seek political status if we went to prison. He recommended that we not recognise the court.”
If he had slipped into Downing Street daily in a false beard and glasses, Powell could hardly have kept a lower profile. He has never given a substantive interview, and as his brother, Charles, puts it, “for years there was only one rather villainous picture of him looking like a junior enforcer in the mafia”. In fact, you can spot Powell in many of those fly-on-the-wall documentary photographs of Blair, usually just off the prime minister’s elbow or a pace or two behind, easily recognisable from his rangy frame and mop of tight black curls. One photograph of him looking on as Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy chat seems to capture his relationship with power: he leans back against a door half smiling, at once both self-effacing servant and, seemingly, director of the scene.
Today, the dark suits have been swapped for jeans, a blue check shirt and a sleeveless fleece. I’ve heard a story about Blair giving Powell his old shirts, which I assume to be apocryphal, but Powell says that, on the contrary, it was very much true and, “I’m slightly missing not having them now, because I don’t get them any more…”
Like his old boss’s, his hair bears witness to the strains of 10 years in power, but he looks somehow younger than his 51 years. The nascent paunch that led Campbell and Blair to dub him Five Bellies Powell, after Gazza’s infamously corpulent sidekick, has
long since submitted to a post-Downing Street diet and exercise regime, and he now radiates a Tiggerish energy. He talks like a machine gun. In his book Powell describes being vetted by Derry Irvine, Blair’s mentor, for the chief-of-staff job. “He said I talked too fast, and asked how the comrades were supposed to understand me when they didn’t think as fast as I spoke.”
We sit in the conservatory of his terraced home in Shepherd’s Bush. The shelves along one wall are filled with a slightly desultory collection of political biographies and diaries: FDR, Kissinger, Clinton, Conrad Black’s Nixon. Powell says he barely managed to read a book while working at Downing Street, though Blair somehow found the time. “In the summer holidays… I don’t know quite how he did it, but he would soak things up, at least a couple of political biographies. He didn’t read novels much, but he really would love reading those. Gladstone was always his favourite.”
In government, Blair was so technophobic that after a while
Powell ordered the computer to be removed from his desk because it was never switched on. But since leaving power, he has learned to email and text, Powell says, somewhat ruefully. The combination of Blair’s acquisition of a BlackBerry and his relentless time-zone hopping mean that his confidants get peppered with emails at all hours. This morning Powell has already received three. Has it not dawned on Blair that his Downing Street lieutenants no longer work for him? “No, I think you’ve got servitude for life.”
One of the hardest things about leaving government is losing protection from the demands of the outside world, Powell says. “You lose the mechanism for saying no. In office you’ve got huge defences. We used to have a wonderful saying, which I think Anji came up with, which was FOFE, which was ‘fob off forever’… you keep saying, ‘Yes, of course, yes, of course’, without ever fixing it.” Without his No 10 apparatus, Blair had massively overcommitted himself. “They told me that he’d committed himself to something like 462 days [of engagements over the coming year], because he was saying yes to everything… I’ve just been trying to unravel it and sort of take it down to 300 days.” (Although Powell is now technically a full-time employee of the American investment bank Morgan Stanley, it is not always obvious that he no longer works for Blair.)
One of the intriguing aspects of the Powell-Blair relationship is the combination of unswerving loyalty with flashes of profound irritation. In his book, Powell relates how he upbraided his boss after he blamed one setback in the talks on a hapless civil servant: “I gave him quite a sharp lecture.” Years later, after talks had hit another impasse, Powell records finding Blair in a deep gloom in his hotel room. “He said, ‘It’s hopeless, isn’t it?’ I told him not to be so stupid.”
Later, as Powell explained to me the different roles of the key Downing Street players, he described his relief that Hunter concerned herself with Blair’s reserves of energy and emotional state, “which I was completely uninterested in… I just thought it was his job to get on with it. She was someone who could just sit there and soak up his angst, which I had very little tolerance of.” (When I ask Blair about the slapdowns in the Powell book, I can almost hear his rictus grin down the phone: “He wouldn’t be Jonathan if he didn’t…”)
I ask Powell to assess Blair’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and he sets off with some gusto, describing his vision and his courage – “The real test of political leaders, and he had that in spades.” But on the weaknesses he ventures, a little half-heartedly, that perhaps there was some hubris towards the end, and “maybe he was not quite tough enough with people”. What was the thing that irritated him most about Blair? “Probably not sticking to things once you’d decided them. I take a very strong view, once you’ve decided to do something, you should really see it through, and he would sometimes be a bit [of a] flibbertigibbet and change his mind afterwards.”
One idiosyncrasy that Powell had to work around was Blair’s insistence on writing all speeches of any significance himself. Although Powell employed talented speechwriters such as Peter Hyman and, subsequently, Philip Collins, Blair felt he needed to pen his own words – in longhand. “He would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and write in his underpants, then we’d have to dash downstairs and give it to the Garden Girls [the No 10 secretaries] to type it up… it was complete misery for the rest of us.”
But, for all the grumbling, it’s hard to escape the impression that Powell would snap to if summoned to serve his old master on some new mission. A mission such as being president of Europe, for instance. Powell denies that there have been councils of war, but concedes, “I would love him to be president of Europe. I think it would be very, very good for Britain in Europe… I mean, the unfinished bit of business that I see from government is making Britain love Europe, and I just think that having a Brit somewhere at the top of Europe might help to change attitudes.”
For the moment, the two men have in common – to the dismay of old Labour types – their embryonic careers as investment bankers, Powell as a managing director of Morgan Stanley and Blair as a $1m a year adviser to JP Morgan. You don’t get the impression that Powell, who has just completed his regulatory exams (“amongst the dullest things I have done in my life”), is relishing his new profession. Do he and his old boss compare notes on their experiences in the world of high finance? “Yes, we sort of sit down and talk about ebitda [a technical term referring to earnings before certain costs] and stuff like that,” he deadpans. “Absolutely.” Really? “No, of course not!”
You have to wonder what Powell’s parents, an RAF education officer who rose to become an air vice-marshal and the daughter of a senior civil servant who served as Winston Churchill’s private secretary, put in the porridge. Famously, the oldest of their four sons, Charles, rose through the diplomatic service to perform an almost identical role to Jonathan in Margaret Thatcher’s No 10. The other two were no slouches either: Chris founded and ran an advertising agency and Roderick had a successful business career in the US.
Charles, 14 years older than Jonathan and the only one of the brothers to insist on the historically correct pronunciation of their surname – “Pole” – suggests the pressure to achieve stemmed from his parents’ relatively modest circumstances. “They decided to educate us privately, but didn’t really have the money to do it, so there was a pressure.” With his older brothers away at boarding school, Jonathan grew up effectively as an only child in Singapore. Politics did not figure much around the family dinner table. “I must be as far from the Milibands on Haverstock Hill as you can imagine.” What they did talk about? He struggles to remember before his wife reminds him that his parents, both prodigious readers, would usually sit at the dinner table engrossed in a book. (Powell’s apolitical background would later raise the hackles of colleagues more rooted in the party but Mandelson insists it qualified him as the perfect New Labour apparatchik: “It made him impatient and uncompromising. He left the tempering to others.”)
Powell is frequently described as an anti-establishment figure despite his firmly establishment background. He says of himself, “I’m of the establishment but anti-establishment.” He counts it a disappointment that Labour failed seriously to challenge the establishment. “What we sort of did was create a new establishment, which was pretty much like the old establishment but with slightly different people… I was really struck a year into government when I went off to [a function for Argentina’s Carlos Menem] and I just noticed it was all the Helena Kennedys of this world who were preening themselves as the new establishment.”
His rebellious streak first manifested itself when he was a schoolboy at King’s School, Canterbury, where at the age of 14 he took to carrying around Mao’s Little Red Book “both in Chinese and English, although I had no idea of how to read Chinese at all, so I think it was more of a statement than a political ideology.” Powell modelled himself on his leftish brother, Chris, but followed the more establishment Charles to Oxford. There, Jonathan, despite his formidable intellect, earned a 2:1 and admits to being deeply disappointed: “It was one of the great tragedies of my life. I remember finding out and being devastated.”
Powell’s first experience of party politics came when, as a plummy-voiced teenager, he helped canvass for Chris, who was running as a Labour candidate for the GLC. “I went to campaign for him, and I’d knock on doors and say, ‘I want you to vote Labour’, and they’d say, ‘Sorry, we’re voting Labour’.” Although he ended up following Charles nto the foreign office and into Downing Street, it is hard to escape the sense that Jonathan is kicking against Charles even now. Strikingly he did not seek Charles’s advice before starting at Number 10 – “Probably part of my resistance to taking lessons from my older brother.”
I ask Charles about the relationship. “My earliest memories of Jonathan are when I was engaged to Carla and this most unpleasant little boy would hop around saying, ‘Carla and Charles are kissing! Carla and Charles are kissing!’ whereupon Carla would give him a huge whop on the bottom – Carla can be quite severe with Jonathan.” Years later, he recalls, Carla took Colin Powell to meet her brother-in-law, by then Blair’s chief of staff. “Jonathan came down in a very New Labour way in a shirt with no tie or jacket, and Carla sent him back to get dressed properly.”
Blair and Powell first met in January 1993, when Blair and Brown, Labour’s two bright young hopes, toured Washington in an effort to absorb the lessons of Bill Clinton’s election triumph. Powell was by now political secretary in the Washington embassy.
Blair remembers being impressed by Powell’s competence and directness, though not impressed enough to make him first choice for the chief-of-staff role when he won the Labour leadership the following year. “He wasn’t, in fact, the first person we approached, but I was extremely glad in later life that he was my chief of staff. To begin with, I wasn’t really that close to him, but as things got tougher, you came to terms with the quality of the guy and the fact that he has this amazing ability to stay calm while all around is chaos… he wouldn’t panic in the worst stages of the worst crisis. He was utterly without panic.”
Arriving in Blair’s House of Commons offices in 1994, Powell initially struggled to carve out a space in the tight-knit matrix of New Labour relationships – Tony and Alastair, Anji and Tony. At the time, he recalls, the dynamics of New Labour’s leading triumvirate were different, too: “Tony was the visionary, front-of-house, inspiration person. And then you had Gordon, who was very good at the politics – thinking how you turn this to your advantage, what you were giving out the next day. And Peter had this reputation as the prince of darkness… but actually, his skill was the ability to think quite a long way ahead, then be able to plan practically the steps that would get you to that long-term goal.” Powell doesn’t say it, but the message is clear: the image subsequently cultivated by Brown as the deep-thinking visionary contrasted with the congenitally spinning Blair was wide of the mark.
Though, like Campbell, Powell never watched more than a few minutes of The West Wing, he acknowledges the parallels between his role and that of the perpetually furrowed Leo McGarry. “I guess what I was doing was making the machine run. In government I’d go up and see Tony in the morning, and he’d give me 25 instructions… One of my favourite ancestors is Hugo de Morville, who was one of the four knights who killed Thomas Becket. He tended to carry out his instructions very literally. I suspect one of my failings was to be a bit literal in carrying out my instructions.”
Days would begin with an eight o’clock meeting in Blair’s flat. “We’d go up and see him… while he’s eating his breakfast. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, who used to cook Charles breakfast, he never cooked me breakfast.” The next 12 hours would be a blur of meetings: a foreign dignitary, a “stock taking” on some policy or other, a furious delegation, a crisis-management session. Blair would head upstairs around 6.30pm or 7pm most days to put Leo to bed, “then I’d try and wrap the things up, sort a million emails, sort a few more meetings, work out what we were doing the next day, and in the meantime we’d have had quick meetings to work out the government for the next six weeks, diary meetings to work out the diary for the next six months, and so on.”
Coming into government, Blair and Powell were determined to unify the political and civil service hierarchies within Downing Street and to break what they saw as the “feudal” power of the departments. If you wanted coherent government, Powell concluded, looking back on his brother’s experience with the Major government, you had to find a way of driving policy from the centre.
The solution that Blair and Powell would evolve to these problems was frequently criticised as replacing cabinet government with “sofa government”. “I think what it became was a metaphor for decisions people didn’t like. In other words, it was easier to attack the means you got to decisions than decisions themselves. I’m completely unrepentant about sofa government… having a formal meeting of cabinet does not make a decision or a discussion any better than having an informal decision and discussion in a group. The key is to have the right people in the discussion and make sure their views are aired and then the right decision is reached… Criticising us just because we did it in the one office rather than the other office, doing it informally rather than formally, strikes me as not fair.”
If Powell regrets anything, it is that Labour did not govern more boldly. “I think we were mesmerised by the notion that we’d be another Labour government that came in, a flash in the pan, and then disappeared again. One term and, if we were lucky, two terms. And so the huge emphasis was on not spending all our political capital, hoarding it and saving it to win another election and stay in power. I think it ran through all three terms. You never quite escaped it.”
Blair was also hamstrung initially, Powell says, by a shortage of frontbench talent. “Sticking to the shadow cabinet when we came in in ’97 was a mistake… Frank Dobson doing health for two years was a disaster.” Pressed for more names, he mumbles something about not being unfair to individuals before offering, “Michael Meacher…”
So what would he have done differently if he could have those early years again? “If it was me, not anyone else but me, I would have concentrated on fewer issues. I would have decided that education, Europe, two or three other things, would be what I was really going to do proactively… I would’ve been much more radical early on. I would’ve gone for mixed provision [public and private] in health and education early on, and I would’ve taken those more radical steps. But it’s all very well saying that now. It would’ve been rather more useful to have said it at the time.”
Powell is unfailingly described by profile writers as “diplomatic”, but one of the most striking things revealed by his book is his capacity for putting his foot in his mouth. When Siobhan O’Hanlon, Gerry Adams’s late assistant, asks for a meeting with Blair during the Good Friday talks, Powell tells her his boss is in a meeting with Bertie Ahern, but “we could get rid of him”. O’Hanlon replies that there is no need and Powell, whose sense of humour frequently falls on the dusty side of dry, chips in that he did not mean “get rid of him in her usual sense”.
“He would say the most outrageous things in meetings,” recalls one former member of the Blair inner circle. Powell does not contest the charge: “Sometimes I say things which are extremely plonkerish at just the wrong moment… which is one of the reasons they kept me away from the press. It would’ve been a complete disaster if I’d have talked to the papers.”
Despite this, Powell was by common consent one of the key elements in the forging of a settlement in Northern Ireland. “Even if they didn’t trust me, they trusted him,” Blair says. “Sometimes Adams and McGuinness would take things from him that they wouldn’t take from me.”
Adams says Powell was effective because he had Blair’s authority – “They were almost Siamese twins” – but was constantly engaged with the Irish problem. “He was in and out of here secretly on numerous occasions… He was someone you could pick up the phone to and he was always available and there were times when I rang when I knew it wasn’t opportune because I could hear children in the background or whatever, but he would always take the call.”
Powell reckons that for 10 years he devoted some time to Northern Ireland “on average every other day or third day”, and flew in and out at least once a month. “Nine-tenths of the battle was paying attention to Northern Ireland. Previous British prime ministers, with the notable and honourable exception of John Major, hadn’t.”
Didn’t Powell ever lose patience with the bickering, the pig-headedness? Didn’t he ever think, “Sod the lot of them”? “Frequently. Repeatedly.”
Reflecting on his experience of Northern Ireland, Powell says the clearest lesson is that we must always find ways to talk to our enemies. “The conclusion I came to, particularly looking back over my papers, over my diaries, was that one of the crucial things in this work was having a link to the IRA right from the 70s onwards. Although it wasn’t used much for large periods, there was always a way they could communicate.”
It’s a principle he thinks we should be adopting now in the Middle East. What about al-Qaida, I wonder, and he answers without missing a beat: “I would say the analogy with al-Qaida is there’s nothing to say to al-Qaida and they’ve got nothing to say to us at the moment, but at some stage you’re going to have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution… If I was in government now, I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida. It’s not an easy step to take, and with al-Qaida there’s a practical problem of finding who you want to talk to, how you’d establish a channel. But I would be urging people to make an effort to do that.”
When I later talk to Blair, unbidden, he volunteers that Powell’s “creativity” was sometimes overlooked. “Sometimes he was almost too creative for the political realities.”
There is a story that when Tony Blair was appointed as the Middle East envoy of the so-called “quartet” (the US, Russia, the UN and the EU), Powell’s wife Sarah forbade him from going to work for “that war criminal”. In fact, he says now, she didn’t quite say that, though he told it that way. It was true that Iraq had caused discord in the Powell household. “I was put on war crimes trial every evening when I came home. She was on the march at the time [of the build-up to war] with one of the girls, and she tried to get me to go on it.”
Neither domestic criticism, nor the Iraqi fiasco have evidently diminished his zeal for liberal interventionism, though. Last November, Powell delivered a speech defending it more robustly than ever. He conceded that, “We should have been clear we were removing Saddam because he was a ruthless dictator suppressing his people. But the lawyers said there was no legal basis for proceeding on those grounds, and so we would not be able to make the case as wholeheartedly as I would have liked.” Showing a fair degree of brass neck, he argued that, if anything, we should be more rather than less willing to intervene elsewhere.
When I ask about the speech, he says, “I personally think the best justification for interventions there [Iraq] and elsewhere is the need to get rid of dictators. As a progressive in the Spanish civil war, we should have been intervening on the side of the Republicans against Franco, and we should have been intervening in Kosovo against Milosevic, we should be intervening elsewhere, like Zimbabwe and Burma.” Unfortunately, he says, both Zimbabwe and Burma fail one of the five tests set out by Blair in his famous speech laying out the case for interventionism: that military action is feasible. “In Zimbabwe it’s very difficult to see how practically you could. That doesn’t mean it’s not right to.”
There were plenty of smaller mistakes in Iraq, he concedes, but the big one was “not understanding quite what we were getting ourselves into… I don’t think we realised quite what a task, or a lengthy task, we were taking on.” But wasn’t it the responsibility of people like him to check that planning for the aftermath was being done, before sending in the troops? “There was planning, but it was planning for completely the wrong thing… there was a plan for water shortages… and humanitarian supplies, and that really wasn’t the issue. And clearly you’re right, in hindsight, there should’ve been a different sort of planning and a different sort of preparation. But it’s very much with hindsight – no one at the time was really saying to us, ‘This is what you need to be prepared for’… Had you known, you would’ve probably had more troops, would probably have been faster to secure the streets from random violence and so on. You wouldn’t let these things happen.”
Powell describes how he heard the news about David Kelly’s death while in America on a beach trip with his sons (he has two older children by a first marriage and two with Helm). “I turned on the radio news on the way into town to get some breakfast and I felt physically sick. I felt horrible.”
But although the Hutton inquiry unearthed an email in which Powell appeared to warn against overstating the intelligence on Iraq’s weapon’s programme, he insists the 45-minute dossier was defensible. He says he fears that the row it sparked has made it almost impossible for a government in a similar crisis in future to tell the public what it knows. But whose fault is that? “Yes, of course we made mistakes. Would I do them again? Course not. But it’s a symbiosis of No 10, the reputation we got for spinning, and the way the media reacted to it, that turned it into quite such a toxic mix. It’s our fault, it’s other people’s fault, too. But it’s changed things permanently.”
Last summer, Powell’s wife wrote an article lambasting the “Gestapo tactics” of the detectives conducting the cash-for-honours investigation. If Powell shared the strain Helm described, says one Downing Street insider, he didn’t show it. “He was always making jokes about the police investigation.”
Now, though, Powell concedes that the experience was “very, very unpleasant”. He was interviewed three times by John Yates’s men, twice under caution, and there was a steady drip-feed of stories (each side accuses the other of leaking) alleging some form of Downing Street cover-up. “It was like being in the heart of a political storm. But usually when a political storm comes in, it comes in and it’s gone in a week… The thing about the cash-for-honours thing is that it went on for so long – for over a year – and if you’re at the heart of it the whole time, you feel the pressure. And it’s very, very personal. It’s not like in normal politics, where you’re thinking about issues and about political ideas. It’s just, ‘You’re a crook, we’re coming after you’.”
Powell saw the cash-for-honours investigation as part of a disturbing trend towards the police becoming too involved in politics. “If someone’s broken the law and really done a criminal act, felony or embezzlement, it should be dealt with as a criminal issue, absolutely. But because the Scots Nats complain about something, is that a sensible reason for the police to get involved?”
Does he really believe that donations or loans were never made in exchange for honours, even if the terms of the transaction was never made explicit? “Yes, I do. And if I didn’t believe that, I’d have done something about it. That doesn’t mean to say conversations… people take conversations in different ways, and whether it gets close to the edge in such conversations, of course that can happen, yes.”
Throughout our conversation, the one no-go zone is the subject of Gordon Brown. Each time I ask about him, Powell responds with the same formulaic parry. Was he surprised at the speed with which the political weather changed for Brown? “I’m not the best commentator on politics.” Was he irked by the Brown camp’s early determination to dissociate themselves from almost every aspect of the Blair era? “I don’t really want to get into being a commentator.” Does Brown have the courage he so admired in his old boss? “I’m not going to comment on that.”
His reticence on this subject is perhaps the legacy of his most famous gaffe, a notorious traffic lights encounter with Boris Johnson during which the then Spectator editor claimed Powell told him Brown would never be prime minister and that the whole situation was “a Shakespearean tragedy”. In his Ireland book ,Powell records, with an hauteur that periodically surfaces in his account of the peace negotiations, how he instructed the Downing Street press officer to dismiss Johnson’s report as nonsense. “I had indeed stopped my bicycle at the traffic lights on the Mall alongside the large, unruly mass of Johnson balanced on his bicycle. And I engaged in banter about Shakespearean tragedies, before riding off fast from the lights and leaving him in a cloud of dust. But, as so often with journalists, Johnson had attributed his own comments to me. It didn’t seem to me to be worth taking seriously. But my attempts to dismiss it were not entirely successful, and the quote about a Shakespearean tragedy was hung around my neck from then on.”
Whatever the truth about the encounter, it is clear that Powell held the pretender to his boss’s job in fairly poor regard. “The Boris Johnson thing is Jonathan to a tee,” says the former No 10 insider. “Whenever he discussed Gordon, he would take things to the absolute nth degree.”
By all accounts the feeling was mutual. According to one version, Brown took against Powell early in his Labour career, when the new chief of staff appeared to patronise the shadow chancellor over a party funding issue. There is a story, surely apocryphal I had assumed, that Brown walked past Powell every week for 10 years for his regular meetings with Blair without ever saying hello. But when I ask about it, Powell is disarmingly candid: “That was true.” In fact, it was closer to 12 and a half years, he says, “although he did very kindly, at the end, come up to me and say, ‘Well done on Northern Ireland’.”
For most of the Blair Downing Street years, Powell sat at a desk just outside the prime minister’s den. I wonder how much he knew about the drama that was unfolding inside during meetings with the chancellor. “I know this sounds a bit prosaic, but it was very much like a marriage. I’ve been divorced once myself, I know how these things can go. There was lots of yelling and shouting, and lots of periods when it was going swimmingly, so there were ups and downs. It was all very emotional, very intense and the dominating relationship in many ways.” Could he really hear the yelling through Blair’s office door? “Oh yes.”
Before leaving I ask for a glimpse of Powell’s diaries. He brings out a stack of tattered notebooks of several different sizes. I ask him to read me an entry to get the flavour of it, and he picks at random a page in a red volume. Almost unbelievably, struggling to make out the words, he begins slowly: “Gordon and Tony finally resolved the row…” Keep going, I implore him. “Nooooooooo.”
Read extracts from Powell’s book, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace In Northern Ireland, in the Guardian from Monday. To order a copy of the book, published by Bodley Head at £20, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0870 836 0875
After a day or two the commenters have spoken. In the usual way they have read into Powell’s words whatever suits their own story. And, of course, it’s mainly about Iraq.
The anti-Blair/Iraq war people say that Powell’s words show that Blair had no idea what he was doing, going into Iraq or that he didn’t care about having any idea, as he was supporting Bush at ALL costs.
At the same time they blithely ignore the fact that Blair’s much criticised interventionism has been successful in most areas in which he has been guided by it.
And they ignore the fact that Blair worked harder than anyone to try to secure a second resolution at the Security Council.
And they ignore the fact that according to all advice previous UN resolutions were sufficient to keep the operation “legal”.
And they ignore the fact that every intelligence service in the world (according to Margaret Beckett today on “Today”) believed that Saddam Hussein had WMDs.
And disregarding the fact that Powell, having mentioned that channels of communication had been open between the UK government and the IRA for decades, AND that we had nothing to talk to Al Qaeda about right now, they leap on his words as evidence that Blair/Bush/Brown/the West should be talking to AQ and all other militant groups.
What planet are these know-alls on? Of COURSE channels are open. And of COURSE we do not talk to terrorists ‘officially’. Of COURSE! It’s called diplomacy, and our former PM is probably the best in the business.
No wonder he no longer talks to the self-destructive British press about anything any more.
I am frankly SICK to death of these ignorant critics.
In the end their apologies for the courage and strength of western leaders who choose to support our value and beliefs, religious or not, is shameful and actually dangerous. They really do need to belt up!
POWELL RECEIVES DHIMMI AWARD
And as for this “dhimmi award” to Powell – shameful. Do the Muslims Against Sharia Law reckon we should just continue to bomb AQ and cohorts indefinitely? Wherever they are? My only concerns with talking to terrorists (which is clearly inevitable, eventually, whether we like it or not) are threefold:
1. Finding the bas****s.
2. Knowing that we are, through ‘channels’, accessing the Top Man/Men.
3. And resulting from (2) – Dealing with the fact that AQ is comprised of disparate groupings spread across many countries and regions.
4. And resulting from (3) – AQ could easily renege on any ‘deal’ because they are NOT under any one centralised leadership, and could blame their brothers as being accountable only to Allah. And we know what they say Allah tells them about their duty. To Muslims Against Sharia Law – please get to work on your own, before you criticise those of us who are on your side.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has an interesting article in today’s Independent.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: This unhealthy strain of left-wing McCarthyism
‘We argued about Israel, US arrogance, royalty and republicanism’
She discusses the BAP – the British American Project (BAP), an Anglo-American network set up by the Right in the US in 1983. Her confusion over the influence inside the BAP of “subversives” and her admitted queasiness over the US/US relationship “because of Iraq” shows how far we need to travel if we are to win THIS battle of minds, much less any greater war. But I DO wish she had continued attending. Like to send me in your place, Ms Alibhai-Brown?
“I attended six gatherings (I think) and was glad to, mainly because it gave me insights into the workings of power. Jonathan Powell, the silent operator, who stood and watched and said nothing unless it was privately to this general or that senator. […] Pilger is absolutely right about the original aims of BAP, the obnoxious greed and devious ambitions of the pioneers. He is, however, completely wrong to conclude that all members buy into that agenda. Many are subversives who bring trouble to the table. You get NGO upstarts, headteachers, extraordinary leaders from the Charitable sector. Shami Chakrabarti is an alumna, so too Rushanara Ali, selected Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. To Pilger, all alumni are plotting bastards and apologists. Many of us are neither.
So why did I stop going? Because I am increasingly queasy about this special relationship, because of Iraq, because New Labour has, without public consultation, made the UK into a client state. I still see my favourite fellows and am very close to some US delegates. One just sent me an Obama T-shirt. My BAP friends seek to make a different, better world, just as Pilger does. He ignores that, going in instead for a McCarthyism of the left which, as it blazes self-righteously, leaves second-degree burns.”