November 4, 2010
Andrew Rawnsley: The End of the Party
Almost ten years ago, I read Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People, his account of the first term of Tony Blair’s Labour government. What impressed most, other than the sheer addictiveness of it, were Rawnsley’s impeccable contacts. When he reported the details of a conversation at which only Tony and Cherie Blair were present, it didn’t take much to work out that his sources went right to the top. For the sequel, he waited until the New Labour project was gasping its dying breaths, and gave us a clangingly obvious title.
The End of the Party is a massive undertaking, for writer and reader (and this review, I’m afraid, will be too): the expanded paperback edition runs to 900 pages, including a 40-page index, a 160-strong bibliography, and more than 4,500 notes. Verifiability is important to Rawnsley: he points out that he has omitted some incidents from the book because he could not obtain satisfactory independent corroboration. Even without these assurances, it is clear that his account is to be preferred to the autohagiographies of the main players – Mandelson, Blair, no doubt Brown soon to follow – simply by virtue of its independence. Rawnsley may be political correspondent of a broadly pro-Labour paper, but he is a critical friend and there is nothing to suggest that he has glossed over ugly details.
The book opens in what now seems like several geological eras past: Tony Blair’s second landslide election victory in 2001. “You may never be as strong again as you are now,” Blair is warned by the Cabinet Secretary. (Civil servants, as permanent fixtures in the machinery of government, tend to have a longer view of things than mayfly prime ministers seeking “eye-catching initiatives.”) In any event, Blair – determined in his second term to be bolder than in his first, where the primary aim was to get re-elected – did not get much settling-in time. Three months after the 2001 election, he was thrown into a forced but willing partnership with George Bush (remember him?) which would define the rest of his premiership and, in all probability, his future legacy.
Blair did not expect Bush to become US president in 2000. He “was looking forward to working with [Al] Gore, hoping it would be a continuation of his relationship with Bill Clinton but without all the embarrassing bits.” Although in September 2001, Blair “was already embracing America’s crisis as his crisis,” he had no natural affinity with Bush. His first phone call with the new president had been a toe-curling affair, “basically consist[ing] of Bush talking about various places in Scotland where he’d got pissed when he was young and asking Tony if he knew them and Tony not knowing what to say.” But Blair was determined to show loyalty after September 11, even though an early warning sign appeared when his statement committing the UK to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America was considered too “poodling” by his adviser Alistair Campbell. Blair in fact was worried that the Americans would, in the words of Blair’s ambassador to the US, “go thundering off to Afghanistan and nuke the shite out of the place” (a fear not without foundation), and wanted to be close to Bush in order to “stop [him] doing something silly.” It was too late: when advised by Donald Rumsfeld that the use of force was not permitted for retribution, Bush’s response was, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” (A sentiment inherited by his officials in the rebuilding of Iraq a few years later.)
Blair went to Washington, where he was “seduced, as most British Prime Ministers are, by the relationship.” His response to the crisis was governed by two personality traits which were hallmarks of Blair’s premiership. The first was his “messianic tendency,” leading to a weakness for promising more than he could deliver and oratorical hyperbole (“The tough and tender third way will rule from Kinshasa to Kabul”). The second was his desire always to find points of agreement with his interlocutor, never to leave someone feeling that they had not got what they wanted. So Bush got what he wanted, and Blair got to feel “pivotal to historic events”, “eager to effectively become Ambassador at Large for Bush. ‘Tony is in his element. He loves this stuff,'” said one senior aide.
It is not surprising that Blair wanted to spend much of his time on international issues (to coin a euphemism). His home relationship with Gordon Brown was going from bad to worse. “Gordon is stronger because he doesn’t care whether people hate him and Tony does,” said one “very senior civil servant” (a term I take to mean one of the handful of cabinet secretaries who served through the New Labour years). Their relationship was poisoned because Brown believed that Blair had committed to standing down after the first term to make way for him. Probably they both believed what they said. “Tony is a great one for saying what he thinks the other person wants to hear. Gordon is a great one for only hearing what he wants to hear.” Blair was so intimidated by Brown – frankly, frightened of him – that he even sent the Chief of Defence Staff to argue a point with Brown about the defence budget which Blair should have handled. Except among Brown’s closest allies, there was no appetite among MPs to replace Blair (who, after all, had won them two thumping victories in general elections): if Brown became PM, the cabinet was divided between “those who feared they would be shot that night, and those who knew they would be shot that night.” Brown’s Treasury was not only “a government within a government, but an opposition within a government.”
Anyway within months of the September 11 attacks, Blair had bigger plans. He “made a general commitment to regime change [in Iraq], and told Bush so, a full year before the war started” – that is, by March 2002. “He was concerned about how to handle domestic opposition,” but “about the merits of having a war, he raised no objection at all.” Like Macbeth, Blair was softened up for further conflict after earlier ventures: Kosovo and Afghanistan. “It’s easier, having done it once, to do it again,” noted Blair’s army commander. Even Colin Powell, who wanted to rely on the UN to deal with Iraq, was frustrated at Blair’s unwillingness to stand up to Bush. “As soon as he saw the President he would lose all his steam.”
Blair’s desire to remove Saddam Hussein from power led to the famous dossiers promoting an invasion of Iraq, each dodgier than the last. One of these cost the BBC its Director General and Chairman, after a Radio 4 reporter said the dossier had been “sexed up” by the government to enhance the case for war, and Lord Hutton’s subsequent inquiry exonerated the government almost entirely. If this looked like a whitewash then, it’s even more blinding now. Rawnsley reaffirms that “in the frenzied September  days leading up to the dossier’s publication, it was intensively reworked, each edit hardening up the claims within it. [...] The propagandist Campbell supervised the spinning of thin, dated and flaky material to make the threat look new, real and urgent.” Moreover, the key problem was that the dossier was commissioned in order to prove the case for war – not to investigate whether or not there was such a case. The terms of reference made it ‘sexed-up’ before it had even been started.
The intelligence services were not coolly and disinterestedly sifting through their thin material and then making their best estimate of Iraq’s capabilities and intentions. They were scrambling under intense pressure to come up with material to support a pre-cooked conclusion that Saddam was a growing menace.
Let alone what came after, this might be reason enough for Blair to have earned his fate as an ex-Prime Minister who, rather than spend time in the country he led for ten years, “preferred to fly the world in private jets and first class cabins [as] he felt he was accorded much more respect abroad than he received in his home country.” (That is one way of putting it.)
It would be unfair, however, to pretend that Blair sailed through Iraq and the preparations for war smoothly. He was in fact “utterly shattered by anxiety” over the issue, though never enough to change his mind. “He looked drawn,” a family friend observed. “He wasn’t sleeping. He hadn’t been eating properly.” He was opposed in the cabinet. Jack Straw told him: “If you go [to war] without a second [UN] resolution, the only regime change that will be taking place will be in this room.” His advisers told him, “This could be the end of you.” When he had to go on TV to announce to the British people the commencement of the invasion in March 2003, Alistair Campbell mockingly suggested he begin, “My fellow Americans…”
Iraq and the aftermath takes up almost 200 pages of The End of the Party, including the miserable story of the death of Dr David Kelly, named as the source for the ‘sexed-up’ allegations. Rawnsley coolly cuts between contrasting moments on 17 July 2003: David Kelly’s last moments alive, alone in the woods of Oxfordshire, and Blair’s speech before US Congress, where he received a standing ovation before even opening his mouth. (“After all the negativity, it made my heart sing.”) By the death of Kelly, Blair was again shaken and shocked. His wife had “never seen him so badly affected by anything.” At a news conference with the Japanese PM, he was asked, “Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister?” As Rawnsley puts it, Blair “stood there in staring silence for several seconds until Japanese officials stepped in to end the news conference.” His response, or lack of, is not surprising, given the details Rawnsley shares of how Blair’s spokesman had briefed against David Kelly, calling him a “Walter Mitty” fantasist in an attempt to destroy his reputation for having dared to expose the government’s dissembling over weapons of mass destruction.
After all this, where the reader at times feels soiled by the indirect contact with the people who populate these pages, the book’s coverage of the remainder of Blair’s years seems somewhat trivial. There is a good deal more of ‘the TB-GBs’, as colleagues referred to the perpetual state of war between Blair and Brown, and of Blair’s wobbles toward resignation, which never came to anything until Brown’s loyalists finally forced the issue in 2006. Blair’s very human desire to cling to power once he had it is in contrast to his lack of interest in how that power worked. “The truth was that a lot of government bored him,” said his second cabinet secretary. His third added that, “Tony thought that if you said to someone ‘reduce crime’ or ‘improve the health service’, they would just go away and do it.” Too late, he came to understand toward the end of his second term that “real delivery is about the grind, not the grand.”
Blair won a third term – or at least the opposition lost it – but much weakened, both in parliament and in his ability to put off the accession of Gordon Brown. But again within months, “he once again bound himself to a hugely unpopular position taken by George Bush for no obvious purpose or gain other than of cleaving to the White House.” In this case it was his refusal to call for restraint or a ceasefire in the bloody battle between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006. Blair’s former Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, observed that “there were only three countries in the world against a ceasefire. Israel was one. The United States was another. And we were the third. People were nauseated.” Blair insisted to his inner circle throughout his tenure that he needed to stay close to Bush in order to maximise his influence on him, but many observed ruefully that he never seemed to exercise this power.
The Brownite coup which finally displaced Blair – by making him commit to a date for his departure in 2007 – might almost have come as a relief after the years of attrition between Chancellor and PM. One unqualified good that Blair could point to, however, was his success in Northern Ireland, securing a lasting (so far) political settlement out of the least promising elements (albeit ones that had been laid in place by John Major). Nonetheless, “there was something repellent about the eventual outcome of the peace process: the power was going to be carved up and the glory enjoyed by the two parties [Sinn Fein and the DUP] who had most fed the hatreds that fuelled the Troubles. They got to enjoy the rewards of the efforts and sacrifices of moderates who had dedicated themselves to peace for far longer than the extremes.” It was a major achievement nonetheless.
The British had had an Irish problem – or perhaps it is fairer to say that Ireland had a British problem – since the Earl of Pembroke landed at a rocky headland near Waterford in 1170. A settlement of peace and justice had eluded kings and prime ministers ever since. The problem defeated William Gladstone and beat David Lloyd George. A resolution to the gruesome and apparently eternal cycle of sectarian violence that broke out in the 1960s was beyond Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Peace in Northern Ireland was Tony Blair’s crowning claim to have achieved something of enduring and historical greatness with his premiership.
In June 2007 Blair left, with his all-shall-have-prizes hatred of personal conflict, and Brown, the “psychotic thug,” took what he believed to be his long overdue right. Paddy Ashdown predicted that the handover would be “Camelot converted to Gormenghast. Owls will hoot as you go up Downing Street.” In fact, the differences between Blair’s and Brown’s styles of government were not so great. Both were presidential, and both obsessed with headlines. Brown quickly learned, with the floods crisis that engulfed parts of the country shortly after his accession, that he could get an easy headline with “PM chairs COBRA” – the dramatic-sounding acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where special meetings were convened to deal with urgent matters. Brown micro-managed everything: “if Blair was a control freak, Brown was the control freak’s control freak.”
Brown’s premiership is likely to be remembered as short and disastrous. But like Blair with Northern Ireland, he did have one unalloyed episode of success, when he presented the template to the rest of the world which prevented the collapse of the banking system in October 2008. But only weeks before the beginning of the credit crunch in the summer of 2007, Brown made his last Mansion House speech as Chancellor and used it to praise the City’s “modern instruments of finance” (the ones that would bring the world’s banking systems to the edge of breakdown a year later) and praised himself for “resisting pressure” to apply stronger regulation to the banking sector. (His successor as PM, David Cameron, was just as myopic, claiming in September 2007 – one month after the beginning of the credit crunch – that “the world economy is more stable than for a generation.” The Conservatives disagreed with New Labour on only significant point: they felt there should be “even less need for regulation.”) Brown’s laissez-faire approach to regulation was one subject on which he could have agreed with his predecessor: Blair opened a meeting with one group of bankers by saying, “I’ve taken the view all my time in office that I should leave you people to get on with making money for yourselves. …And the country.” Peter Mandelson, the third man of New Labour, famously assured executives in one speech that his party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich … as long as they pay their taxes.” Brown allied himself with (and arranged an honorary knighthood for) Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve for twenty years and an architect of the 2008 crash, who only when it was too late accepted that his free-market “ideology was not right, was not working”.
Brown’s tenure as PM may have been extended by his handling of the global economic crisis – it avoided an immediate leadership challenge – but his premiership was permanently damaged by the “bottler” attacks which came after he dithered over calling a snap election in the autumn of 2007. He then looked weak when he insisted on his chancellor Alistair Darling (probably the only senior Labour politician to come out of the book with any credit) matching the Tories’ inheritance tax commitment. From then on, his government staggered more or less from one crisis to another: missing data discs, the 10p tax rate (a result of Brown’s “decision-making process [of] almost endless prevarication followed by absolute inflexibility”), and so on. He was embarrassed by President Obama’s official gift to him on their first meeting, of a DVD boxed set of American films. (“It looked like something they’d found in Wal-Mart,” said one of his aides.) He became the headline-chaser that he had so despised in Blair: “in the space of just five days, he popped up in the Sun and on American Idol to promise that he would wipe out malaria; signed up to a Daily Mail campaign against supermarket plastic bags; [and] told football crowds they should be nicer to referees.” He brought his old foe Peter Mandelson back, and tried to destroy his Chancellor after Darling – two weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers – said in an interview that economic conditions were the worst they had been in 60 years. (“The only thing I’d change if I had my time over again,” he later added, “is that I should have said 100 years.”)
As if all this were not meat enough for politics junkies, the paperback edition of The End of the Party brings us up to date. This presents the bizarre moment when Andrew Rawnsley appears in the book himself, as in some Nabokovian hall of mirrors, arguing with John Prescott on Newsnight after the first edition of his book sent ripples through Whitehall. Largely this was down to the surely unsurprising revelations that Gordon Brown was a miserable bastard to work for, who regularly took his bad temper out on his colleagues, and even pushed and shoved people. Asked if he had ever been hit by the Prime Minister, Peter Mandelson replied, intriguingly, “I took my medicine like a man.”
The paperback also gives us Blair’s performance at the Iraq War Inquiry, when by refusing to express sorrow for the loss of life in Iraq, the consummate political actor showed that “he had either forgotten how to do empathy or could no longer be bothered to try.” Brown appeared too, later having to admit lying to the inquiry (but not apologising) with the figures for MOD funding he gave. The penultimate chapter is the election which nobody ever thought Gordon Brown would win (except Gordon Brown), and includes the painful preparations for the first ever televised debates in the UK, with advisers spending one whole session persuading Gordon Brown that “Where’s the meat in the pie?” was not going to be a killer line that would slay David Cameron. We also get the aftermath of the election, and the protracted negotiations which led to Britain’s first coalition government in 65 years.
The End of the Party is not a book of political analysis. Rawnsley rarely offers his own comment on the acts of the people involved (he doesn’t need to). It is instead a story of how reactive and short-term politics in the UK is, and how it is the personalities of the people involved, rather than any political philosophy, which primarily determine the policies they enact. It is gripping and horrifying, and sometimes funny (“Where’s the meat in the pie?” is the killer line that slayed me). We can only hope that Andrew Rawnsley is already in confidential conversations with the players of the coalition, collating material for an equally eye-opening book on our new political masters.