Fair play to Andrew Marr for giving a more rounded view of Tony Blair’s book than will come over from the screaming headlines. What is coming through from the small number of people who have actually read the book is a sense of its richness, its capacity to surprise, its candour and breadth.
Though A Journey is bound to be a best-seller, far more people will read and hear about it than will read it. And though the screaming headlines may be justified by concentrating on one part of the book at one time, in a memoir as large and significant as that written by a former prime minister, it really is important to see that broader, fuller context.
So Marr, who has both read the book and interviewed TB on its contents for a BBC programme going out tonight, was right to point to that broader context, not least in saying that TB at times ‘bends over backwards’ to be fair to GB. It was a complex relationship and this is a complex story, which TB does not try to simplify.
So much has already been said about the TB-GB relationship, and in many ways TB’s version confirms a well known outline – their extraordinary closeness early on, the difficulties arising from TB becoming leader when John Smith died, the big achievements often made together, a lot of tension, not always creative, then the final, rather sad and destructive period which led to TB’s departure from office. But it is important to remember the good along the way as well as the unpleasantness.
Andrew Marr was right too to point up the self-revelatory intimacy of this book, from his admission of fear at becoming PM in the opening pages, his terror of PMQs, his manipulative tendencies, his emotional ups and downs, his agonising over Iraq, his worries that he was occasionally drinking too much (that DID come as a surprise, though as John Reid pointed out this morning, where he comes from, budgies drink more than TB was).
Most of all A Journey gives a very good sense of what it was like to have been Prime Minister through an extraordinary period of history. There are some really important insights in there, about leadership, about the changes taking place in the world, about the characters and themes shaping them.
I see from the Guardian online coverage – they too had had prior access to the book – that one of their headlines concerned TB’s reference to my having ‘great clanking balls’ which produced some funny stuff on twitter last night.
As with GB, so with many others, me included, you can go to one part of the book and find praise and flattery (I think TB’s view of great clanking balls goes in that category) go to another and tougher assessments are made. Tony Livesey on Five Live asked me if I was hurt that he had described me as a ‘mad axeman’ (he had by then only read the Telegraph). If memory serves me right TB was referring to a period long after I had left, when the media were even worse than when I had been there, and suggested had I still been in Number 10 I’d have gone at them like a mad axeman. Figure of speechish rather than AC is a mad axeman… I think.
He has some very nice things to say along the way. But, as Andrew Marr also rightly pointed out, this is very much his story and, he always was the main man, whatever the different strands of advice and pressure going in his direction. The reaction his book is generating confirms him as Britain’s biggest political figure since Thatcher, and the responses he provokes are if anything more intense. One thing I am sure of – he has written a more interesting memoir than Maggie’s.
— one small point to make. Some are trying to say that TB deliberately timed this to coincide with the Labour leadership ballot papers going out. I know for a fact he didn’t, and would rather it could have been published on a different day. But the date was set before the leadership timetable was – and bear in mind it is being published in many countries and several languages simultaneously, which is not that easy to unplug.
— final point to broadcasters asking for interviews. Not doing any right now.