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."