As Blair contemplates posterity and Brown broods next door, Howard Davies sifts through the tales of apostates, hatchet men and hangers-on
Even though Tony Blair says firmly that he plans to go on and on - or at least on for another four and a half years - the obituaries of his regime are now being written. This is partly attributable to the wave of kiss-and-tell memoirs beginning to break over us. Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and Clare Short present the verdicts of the disappointed and disaffected; Derek Scott, those of the retainers now surplus to requirements. And there is Alastair Campbell to come.
There is also a sense that, whatever else may happen on Blair's watch, Iraq will still prove to have been the defining episode of his premiership. His place in history - an increasing preoccupation of prime ministers as their terms of office mature - will surely be influenced more by events on the streets of Baghdad than in the schools of Bradford.
So even though he may well be in Downing Street until 2009, there is a sense in which the Blair project is already over. Foreign policy has obscured the Prime Minister's own domestic agenda. Gordon Brown continues to control economic policy, excluding his neighbour from close involvement.
One curiosity of the past seven years is that even though economic management has been competent and the economy robust, Blair rarely mentions his Government's role.
While we can no longer quite recall what Blair planned to achieve, Brown is a significant, if closet, redistributionist, whose policies have made an impact on child poverty. He has a clear view on the market's place in public services and of the role of the state in correcting market failures.
Meanwhile, Blair moves from one managerial reform to another, sometimes devolving power, sometimes centralising it. A pattern is hard to discern.
On Europe, where he promised a new engagement, we have regressed. There is now no prospect of euro membership under Blair. His third-term struggle will be to win a referendum on the constitution and, if he fails, withdrawal will be firmly on the agenda for the first time in 30 years.
Perhaps, indeed, he will help to achieve the aims of the isolationist agenda that he supported when first elected to Parliament in 1983.
So the Government finds itself in a curious position. Condemned by the lack of plausible opposition to remain in office, yet facing a twilight of disappointment. That, certainly, is the message from Anthony Seldon's Blair . His conclusion after 696 exhaustive, at times exhausting, pages is that Blair "clings on to power, in search of a break in the clouds that will allow him to leave on a high note".
Seldon's is not a conventional biography. It is a strange mixture of analysis and half-digested source material. The added value comes from some 600 interviews carried out largely by his researchers, which add texture to what might otherwise be a pedestrian account. They have talked to politicians and, clearly, to a lot of officials. Frustratingly, while all his quotes and assertions are scrupulously footnoted, the freshest and most interesting are sourced only to "Interview".
He uses the material in an unusual way, focusing on 20 events and 20 people. The "events" include the loss of Blair's mother, at one extreme, and Iraq, at the other. The people range from Anji Hunter, through God and Charlie Falconer to Peter Mandelson.
At times, this structure seems forced and artificial, and disturbs the flow of the narrative. But there are offsetting advantages, and a reader interested in the influences on Blair's world-view will find it helpful.
It is unusual in a third way, too. (Not that the Third Way itself makes much of an appearance - "vapid" is the kindest adjective Seldon finds for it, and elsewhere it is "the worst kind of academe, shot through with meaningless jargon".) The author's own attitudes clearly developed as the work proceeded. An early photo is captioned "Blair gazes confidently ahead, utterly assured that victory will be his". Halfway through, we are shown George W. Bush and Blair together, with the Prime Minister marching on "as if by clockwork". By the end we learn that Blair's "character flaws, above all his hubristic belief in... the rightness of his own 'principled' course of action, damaged him greatly".
Though some may argue that Seldon lacks a distinct point of view, I find this approach honest and refreshing. When facts change, so should opinions.
But the central test of any book on Blair must be how it explains why he was such an uncritical admirer of Bush and became embroiled in his Iraq War.
Some analysis is conventional: the desire to be seen as empathetic with the US after 9/11; the attempts to act as a transatlantic bridge. Other elements are more insightful. Seldon emphasises the influence of Kosovo on Blair's view of the Americans, and of his ability to exert leadership internationally. For reasons that may remain obscure to others, he regards his intervention there as a success.
Seldon also struggles with Blair's religious convictions and their impact on foreign policy. This is not easy territory, and Seldon is indeed careful. He emphasises that the team around Blair - many of them non-believers - should not be seen as a religious sect. But his faith clearly informed his decision on Iraq and gave him that unsettling certainty that seems impervious to argument. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope made no impact. "Blair's religious belief informs his unshakeable confidence that he alone can resolve difficulties, especially in a crisis, even when the highest Christian authorities on earth differ from him."
There is only one higher authority (if we except Cherie on family matters) to which Blair defers: Gordon Brown, his mentor, first mate, strike bowler, scrum half and probably in due course his nemesis. To Seldon, in spite of everything, Brown is the winner in this increasingly bizarre duel. He is an "economic and strategic genius", and his achievements are "almost undimmed by the relationship". "Brown felt himself to be the loser, but in the end, it was Blair who lost out far more."
If Brown makes it to page 689, he may be pleased by these words. They are more flattering and agreeable than anything he will find in Tom Bower's provisional biography. Bower has a solid record as a warts-and-all biographer. He cut his teeth, twice, on Robert Maxwell, and his more recent production on Richard Branson, with its revelations of his unusual business and personal habits, ought to have significantly reduced the bearded one's photo opportunities - though oddly it has not. But Brown is a different proposition, more complex and more comprehensively covered by others. How does he emerge here?
Sadly, though perhaps not for Brown, the first thing one has to say is that this is a poorly drafted and shoddily edited book. Sentences such as "In his car, Wanless was oblivious of Brown's joy" should have been strangled at birth, and there are many many careless errors. Names are misspelt with gay abandon. Oxford readers will have a sharper recollection than Bower of what he calls the "Laura Spencer" affair. The references to me - I play a walk-on part - are generally, though not perhaps importantly, wrong. Since I declined to be interviewed, it may be argued that I have only myself to blame.
More significantly, this is two books in one: an assessment of Brown's behaviour over the past two decades and of what that reveals of his personal fitness for even higher office, and a critique of Labour's economic policies since 1997. Bower may be competent to write the first book, but he lacks the credentials for the second. He has no coherent view on economic management generally, or financial policy specifically, on which he focuses a lot of attention. The reader would be wise, therefore, to discount Bower's forecasts of gloom and doom ahead. Brown has certainly been a lucky Chancellor, and we may run into choppy water, especially if the oil price remains high, but Bower's charge sheet is erratic and eccentric. He accuses Brown of wanting to privatise everything, then, later, of frustrating Mandelson's plans for the Post Office. He savages first-term fiscal prudence and then attacks recent spending extravaganza. The authorial point of view is hopelessly confused.
Book one is more interesting, though it is an exercise in substantiating a thesis rather than a dispassionate inquiry. Bower sets out to prove that Alastair Campbell's famous characterisation of Brown as a man with "psychological flaws" is correct.
To follow every twist and turn of Brown's early political career, and of the fraught relationships between Brown, Blair and Mandelson, you need a Scottish anorak. There is more here than anyone could wish to know about student politics at Edinburgh University and the travails of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1980s. Brown's flirtations with various constituencies north of the border are faithfully catalogued. Later, we relive evenings spent watching football with Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan in Geoffrey Robinson's Grosvenor House hotel room, and even minor spats with Stephen Byers or Harriet Harman are reviewed in thrilling detail. The mysteries of new Labour are laid bare, but the plot line is somewhat repetitive. Every couple of months a rising Labour star is found strangled in the morning on Fleet Street. Who done it? Professor Brown, in the hotel room, with a Whelan.
No one has ever, I think, accused Gordon Brown of being a warm and cuddly colleague, ever willing to help a lame minister across the street. But Bower fails to distinguish between those rows that are an inevitable feature of the relationship between spending departments and the Treasury, and those that have their origins in political or personal animosities.
Some of the early benefit proposals emerging from the Department of Social Security, as it then was, threatened to break the bank and would have been opposed by any Chancellor. And I cannot recall a time when relations between the Treasury and the Foreign Office have been friendly. Cook and Brown may have added a special personal antipathy to the mix, but there is a "cats and dogs" element to these ancient feuds of which Bower seems unaware.
In an attempt, no doubt, to appeal to the Mills and Boon audience, Bower devotes considerable attention to what we might delicately term the romantic interest. There are photos of the mysterious Princess Margarita of Romania, and the rather less mysterious Sheena MacDonald. It turns out - I'm not sure quite how to put this in a paper that may be picked up in the common room by impressionable young staff - that Brown had girlfriends who stayed over, before he got married! We await the killer revelation that will prove that our man cannot be trusted, but in vain.
Indeed, Bower himself seems, finally, to acknowledge that the essence of Brown has escaped him. The concluding sentence of the book reflects a sense of failure, though Bower tries to imply that this is somehow Brown's fault for failing to reveal himself, rather than the biographer's failure to understand him: "Curiously, even after he has spent seven years as Chancellor, the substance of a future Brown government remains an enigma, reflecting the unresolved conflicts bedevilling the man himself." I suppose, in this infelicitous sentence, "the man himself" is Brown, but it could just as well be Bower.
Derek Scott's book is in a different category. Off Whitehall is in a long line of "kiss-and-tell" revelations by obscure and apparently loyal retainers that have kept publishers ticking over ever since Crawfie spilled the beans on Prince Charles' potty training almost 50 years ago. Scott worked for Denis Healey in the 1970s, but joined the late lamented Social Democratic Party, in whose interests he failed to win Swindon in 1983. Then he moved into the City as an economist with BZW, a now-defunct investment bank. From 1994 to early 2004 he was the Prime Minister's economic adviser. (For now, this employer, unlike the others, remains operational.)
By his own admission, Scott did not do a good job, or indeed much of a job at all. We are told that even after ten years of "advice" from Derek, Tony has no "genuine grasp of the economic issues with which he grapples". Indeed, we learn near the end of Off Whitehall that "economic advice was normally surplus to Tony's requirements" - a surprising admission, given the source.
Most of the book, therefore, is not about Blair and his approach to the economy. It is a polemic against European monetary union. If that is the kind of thing you like, you will like this. Scott makes his points clearly, and he has done a bit of homework on the secondary and, sometimes, primary sources. (Clearly his light duties in Downing Street left him the leisure to do so.) And there are some telling passages - especially his deconstruction of Blair's major speeches on European policy, notably the lecture in Warsaw in October 2000 that includes the celebrated distinction between Europe as "a superpower, but not a super state". He characterises this as a "classic piece of Third Way triteness that attempts to reconcile two irreconcilable themes while seeking to soothe fears among the British electorate about the development of a European federal state". That, indeed, is his most powerful argument, that successive generations of strongly pro-European British politicians have failed to come clean with the electorate about the nature of the project they support and the end-point they envisage.
Scott, evidently, did not draft the PM's European speeches. Nor was he involved in fiscal policy. Another revelation, which sold the Sunday paper serial rights, was that Brown is rarely prepared to give even the Prime Minister an advance indication of his budget plans, leaving no time for economic input from Downing Street. Even more surprisingly, Scott confesses that he was rigorously excluded from policy debates on the euro within government: "the Prime Minister determined that I took no part in any of these discussions" (leading up to the famous five-tests assessment in 2003). Seldon does not think this a great loss. He describes Scott unkindly as an economist who was unlikely to keep Ed Balls awake at nights.
So these are privileged insights from a man who read the newspapers like the rest of us to find out what the Government's economic policy was, and who was not consulted on the one subject he cares about. It is as if Crawfie had never been allowed into the nursery yet wrote her memoirs all the same. I do, nonetheless, hope that Off Whitehall rushes off the shelves and makes Scott a decent pot of money. Then he can return to the taxpayer the salary he drew for seven years while - as far as we can see - doing almost nothing to earn it.
Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics and Political Science. He has also served as special adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1985-86), director-general of the CBI (1992-95), deputy governor of the Bank of England (1995-97) and chairman of the Financial Services Authority (1997-2003).
Author - Anthony Seldon
Publisher - Free Press
Pages - 755
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7432 3211 9