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Tony Blair: Man of mystery (Getty Images) 

Tony Blair is one of the most mysterious figures in our political history, and likely to remain so. His memoir, though surprisingly well-written in places — his opening chapter describing the night he became Prime Minister is hugely entertaining — and often jarringly sharp amid oceans of soft soap, tells us little about him we did not already know. Historians will find him harder to deconstruct and put together again in a recognisable category than even Lloyd George. 

The one certain thing about him is his ability to attract voters. He was by far the most successful Labour leader, making Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson seem marginal by comparison. His victory in 1997, giving Labour a majority of 179 over all other parties combined, was without precedent and made the 1945 landslide seem tame. 

Moreover, unlike Attlee, he was very much the personal victor, displaying a genius for attracting normally Tory voters, especially in the south of England. He captured places like Hove and Hastings, Crawley, Worcester, Basildon and Harrow, and retained them in the following two elections. 

I have no doubt at all that had he not weakly and perhaps also generously ceded the premiership to Gordon Brown while his lacklustre colleagues idiotically allowed it to happen, Blair would have won a fourth victory, and would be Prime Minister today. So long as he remained Labour leader, a Tory revival was impossible.

The reason for this is elementary. Blair calls himself New Labour, and insists on the metaphysical as well as the programmatic significance of the term. But by instinct and conviction, he is body and soul a Tory, albeit in some ways a radical one, like Canning, Peel, Joe Chamberlain and Baldwin. His father was the foster-child of a Glasgow rigger in the Govan shipyard, an upwardly mobile go-getter who had a good war, was promoted to major, and thereafter became a barrister and a staunch Conservative activist. He was in line for the nomination of the safe Tory seat of Hexham in 1964, when suddenly incapacitated by a stroke. Had he become a Tory MP we can be certain that Blair would have followed him.

Indeed, I have never been able to detect, in his behaviour or speeches, any evidence of bedrock Labour sentiments, and this memoir fails totally to explain why he drifted into the party. There was never any real reason. It was happenstance. Or rather I prefer the Quixotic explanation offered by his former housemaster at Fettes, Eric Anderson and his wife Poppy. Blair was always a consummate actor, and was given the part of Anthony in the school production of Julius Caesar, although not yet a senior boy. He had a startling success in the part, as one would expect. Poppy did the costumes, and dressed the followers of Brutus in blue. Anthony and his men wore red. "And that," she said, "was how Blair became Labour."

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Tingham
November 16th, 2010
1:11 PM
Exellent Review, in my opinion. Ive wavered between the libertarian wing of the tories and the free market wing of the Lib Dems for a few years. Having been a Diplomacy undergraduate now for 2 years or so, I have to say that my opinion of the man is changing. I didnt always agree with him, and i didnt like the people around him, but I did get the feeling that he was a generally nice guy.

Anonymous
November 4th, 2010
1:11 PM
No, no, no. How a distinguished conservative like Mr. Johnson could get this so wrong is staggering. Blair was not, and is not, a Tory. His protestations to this effect, and the little fact of his being a lifelong member of the Labour party, should be evidence enough. Always and everywhere the Blair government displayed a zeal for the new and a contempt for the old. Its reams of freedom-destroying legislation, its pragmatism-light foreign policy and its enthusiasm for mass immigration and European integration are testament to this. Blair's personal approach was chilling to behold. He was Britain's first Third World leader, a Big Man who cared little for cabinet meetings and contraints upon the power of the executive. He openly disrespected the Queen and abused Parliament by passing 'signal' legislation such as the Hunting With Dogs Act that was never meant to be enforced. His administration oversaw the erosion of free expression and trial by jury. These are not trivial matters.

Mike
October 28th, 2010
12:10 AM
Paul Johnson is a most eloquent writer, and he is obviously well informed in British politics. His article/blog starts as a suave criticism of Blair, continues as a cynical analysis and ends by endorsing him as something akin to a safe leader who can still help Britain in the future. Hmmm. Safe? But isn't Blair the man who turned Britain into number two target for muslim terrorists? I say "muslim" quite intentionally, and not out of any disrespect for muslims, but because Blair (slightly accidentally) provoked a war against the followers of that religion. Britains now live in a police state, and we shall not see the end of this ongoing war for decades to come. So far the war is responsible (directly or indirectly) for the deaths of between two and three million souls, about half of them children. The tally hasn't closed yet. Some members of the Labour Party, myself included, begged Mr Blair to lift the sanctions against Iraq (which killed more than half a million children) and begged him even harder not to invade Iraq. But Blair had already destroyed the Labour Party anyway (Oh how he smothered idealism!) so yes, he was a good Tory. To suggest that Blair was (on balance) rather good for Britain is a nauseatingly smug conclusion, and I can only suppose that the writer has always had it a little bit too good. A pseudo socialist? A deferential Tory? Why bother having elections at all if all we want is the status quo; if we don't really value democracy; and if we don't really want to empower inspired people to improve things? I didn't vote for Tony Blair, not even to make him leader of the party. I am a socialist and I voted Labour, but Blair corrupted the Labour Party, going so far as to erradicate the very word "socialism" from the manifesto. Apparently, the Labour Party no longer needed socialism. I shan't vote Labour again unless it makes a public apology to Iraq and the families of our fallen soldiers, and renounces the legacy of Tony Blair. Or perhaps it would be better if the Labour Party just buries itself in shame, forever. Socialism doesn't need it.

juan
October 16th, 2010
12:10 AM
i have read before maestro paul johnson saying political parties are a obstacle for real democracy. we should vote for persons, not for parties

J White
October 15th, 2010
5:10 PM
Excellent, insightful review.

Andrew Lale
October 15th, 2010
4:10 PM
Just writing about this article in my blog. Probably the best thing I've ever read about Blair. I'm one of the tiny minority in Britain who like Mr Blair, and always wished he'd been a Conservative. He is a much better man than most of the current Conservative crew, and certainly a better politician. Thanks Mr Johnson for a good read.

Anonymous
October 11th, 2010
10:10 PM
I'm not sure Liberal defectors would join a Blair led party. The defectors are likely to come from the leftish anti-war wing and for them Blair is beyond the pale.

Martin O'Sullivan
October 5th, 2010
8:10 PM
Superb review. Best I have read. Blair was cautious in parts. Just in case the Blair II project gets an airing?

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