A version of this appears on The Huffington Post site today
To the splendidly New Labour King’s Place on Monday, and an onstage interview with Steve Richards of the Independent as part of his ‘Politics Rock and Roll’ series.
Steve, one of the less cynical UK commentators, is doing his bit to try to re-engage the public with politics by putting on talks like this, and the fact that we had a full house on a Euro football night suggests he is not wrong in saying people want deeper debate than they get from day to day media coverage.
Once he had led me through the main themes of my new book, Burden of Power, which goes from 9/11 to the war in Iraq and my resignation from Downing Street, he threw it open to q and a, and as I said at the end, they were a cut above many of the question and answer sessions I have done. I didn’t keep a note, but here are a few examples, with answers shorter than the ones I gave:
What is Rupert Murdoch like ‘as a man’? (complicated)
Will broadsheet newspapers still exist in 20 years? (Some but not most)
Did GB support TB properly over Iraq? (He certainly did towards crunch time)
Why did Boris beat Ken and will he one day beat Cameron? (The fact that is the choice suggests the Tories are in trouble)
Are TB’s reputational issues over money a failure of spin? (To some extent perhaps, given he employs 100 people or so, and spends millions on charitable projects)
Do I think lobbying is a problem?(Only if politicians and civil servants allow it to be)
What more could we have done as a Government to stop the Tories getting back in? (Pushing back even harder against ‘forces of conservatism’ and staying united at the top)
Was it a turning point for mental health that four MPs spoke about their mental health problems in the Commons last week? (I hope so but I was disappointed their speeches did not get more coverage)
Should Leveson not suggest a ban on the reporting of the children of public figures and does the media reporting of politics not put people, especially women, from going into politics? (Spot on)
But my favourite question came from a young man I later learned was Steve’s son Jake. He said that I had spent part of the evening criticising David Cameron’s government ‘but it is well known that he, Michael Gove and others hero-worship Tony Blair, you and the Blair team … does that alarm you or are you secretly flattered?’ Cue laugher from the audience.
As for the answer, I refer the honourable Huffington Post reader to my answer re Murdoch above – it is complicated.
At a personal level, I don’t think I have much in common with Cameron at all, whose life and background is closer to the play POSH than it is to the values I hold, and the background I come from, a different middle class to the middle class he purports to be.
As for the politics, he has a funny way of showing any residual and grudging respect for any abilities I might have, fairly regularly taking potshots, whether in the Commons – where he has twice made statements about me which were untrue – or at Leveson.
Yet it is also true, whenever you talk to his key people in Number 10, that he and Gove, and to some extent George Osborne, do try to model a lot of their approach on the Blair government. When they sit around discussing problems, it is not unknown for them to say ‘what would The Master have done in these circumstances?’ and they are talking not about any Tory PM, but TB.
Likewise, though rhetorically Cameron seeks to distance himself from the approach we took to communications, he has maintained many of the changes we made.
And of course on policy, though I believe Gove’s policies are somewhat to the eccentric side of potty, he is a sassy enough politician – unlike Andrew Lansley with his NHS reforms – to dress them up as ‘heir to Blair’ reforms.
So I went through all of the above in answering young Jake, but concluded by quoting from a recent article by right-wing commentator Fraser Nelson. He too was aware of the extent to which Cameron and Co have read all the New Labour books and manuals, and sought to learn from them. He is also right to point out that they have learned the wrong lessons.
Both Cameron and Blair, he said, were obsessive in going out to persuade the media to support them. But the big difference is this: we did the strategy first – New Labour, New Britain, modernization as a message that held everything together – and then went out to persuade. Cameron is a good persuader but is coming unstuck because he lacks a clear strategy. It is why he failed to win a majority in the most benign of electoral circumstances for an Opposition. It is why he is struggling now. He is all persuasion no strategy.
I listed some of the many themes and ‘top priorities’ he has thrown out there as possible core strategies. From The Big Society to the decontaminated brand to the greenest government ever, he has stuck with none of them, with the possible exception of ‘dealing with the deficit to avoid a double dip recession’, on which he and Osborne are failing.
Of course ‘all in this together’ has had to bite the dust too on the back of a Budget tax cut for the rich which exposed not just their true POSH colours but their strategic ineptitude.
So the answer to Jake’s question is that I feel neither flattered nor annoyed. I am pleased they are reading the books, and even more pleased they are not heeding the central message.
Because I think a careful reading of the diaries, whilst showing the huge number of events and personalities and clashes which had the capacity to throw us off course from time to time, also show that whatever was happening day to day, we did more or less manage to stay focused and strategic most of the time. Never easy, but only possible if you know, understand and believe in the strategy.
Cameron remains unclear about his overall strategy, and Fraser Nelson was spot on about the difference between the two men and the two teams. Long may it continue.
And for those Tories who do want to learn the proper lessons, Burden of Power is available in all good bookshops, and dedicated signed copies can be ordered via firstname.lastname@example.org