Blair Unbound

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The first volume of Anthony Seldon's riveting and definitive life of Tony Blair was published to great acclaim in 2004. Now, as the Labour Party and the country get used to the idea of a new leader and a new Prime Minister, Seldon delivers the most complete, authoritative and compelling account yet of the Blair premiership. Picking up the story in dramatic fashion on 11 September 2001, Seldon recaps very briefly Blair's trajectory to what may now be regarded as the high-point of his leadership, and then brings us right up to date as Blair hands over the reins to his arch-rival, Gordon Brown. Based on hundreds of original interviews with key insiders, many of whose views have hitherto been kept private, Blair Unbound serves both as a fascinating 'volume two' of this masterclass in political biography and a highly revealing and compelling book in its own right.

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About the Author:

Anthony Seldon is the author of several books on the Tony Blair administration, including 10 Downing Street, Blair, Blair’s Britain, and The Blair Effect. Peter Snowdon is the coauthor of The Conservative Party. Daniel Collings is the coauthor of Britain Under Thatcher.

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Introduction

From the Making of Tony Blair to Blair Unbound

This is the second volume of a two-part biography. The first volume, entitled simply Blair, was published in 2004, and concentrated on Tony Blair's life up to his second term in office. My aim in that book was to explain how an initially unambitious man, who displayed little interest in politics or public life at school, university or in his early legal career, rose to become one of the most successful Labour leaders in modern British politics. Almost all other Prime Ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and latterly Gordon Brown, displayed from their earliest years not only an acute interest in politics but also a burning ambition to rise through the ranks. Not Tony Blair. The structure of the first book was designed to help explain this essential conundrum: it consisted of forty chapters, twenty devoted to the people and twenty to the events that emboldened, inspired and moulded this unformed and callow young man into the person he became by 2001. The argument was that, under their influence, Tony Blair forged himself into a superbly effective, election-winning force. He excelled at presentation and at politics, but he had yet to mature as a policy-maker, or to work out what he wanted to do with power. His own policy preferences remained incomplete and naive, consisting of a mish-mash of Christianity, social democracy and the vogue-ish and ultimately insubstantial 'third way'. Blair was a story of electoral success but disappointment on policy.

All the individuals who had helped shape him on his rise to power played key parts, but none more so than his mother, who died when he was just twenty-two years old, and who helped give him his boundless self-confidence and his life-long anchor in religious faith. Another woman, his wife Cherie, was the other dominant force in his life, firing his zeal for the Labour Party, grounding him in the stability of family life and encouraging him to live out his faith. He loved her deeply and would not have become, nor remained, Prime Minister for so long without her. The dominant non-family figures who made possible his rise, and that of New Labour, were the 'quartet', Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and lifelong friend Anji Hunter. In the early 1990s they had been bound together by a mutual love, a deep commitment and a shared sense of purpose: the determination to see Labour sweep John Major's Conservatives from power. Subsequently, this tight-knit group split up with spectacular consequences. The first blow to their unity came in 1994, when Brown felt betrayed by Blair over his succession as Labour leader following the death of John Smith in May that year. Brown could scarcely believe that a man he considered his junior and inferior had leapfrogged over him to lead the party. Consolation came from the understanding Brown believed he had reached with Blair at the Granita restaurant at the end of May: that he would effectively be running domestic policy in a joint premiership and that Blair would stand down for him mid-way through the second term.

As Leader of the Opposition from 1994 to 1997, Blair boldly weaned the party off its attachment to the symbolically significant 'Clause Four', but caution overcame him in the latter two years as he became fixated on a Labour victory at the General Election. Nothing was more illuminating about him at this time than his first appointment on winning the leadership election in July 1994. It was not a policy chief, nor a figure with deep experience in either the party or government, but a head of media relations, Alastair Campbell. Blair was so desperate to have him onside that he pursued him personally to the South of France to persuade him. Blair also leaned heavily on another brilliant media guru, Peter Mandelson, who like Campbell was far more versed in presentation than policy. The 1997 manifesto was unsurprisingly light on detailed commitments. Substance, Blair insisted, would flow once Labour was safely in power. As with most other of his predecessors in Number 10, however, he found devising policy on the wing took second place to the business of running the nation. His first term showed that Labour was 'safe' to run the country, but he was strong on windy aspiration and rhetoric, and low on personal domestic policy achievements. Hubris came to the fore. He had transformed the Labour Party: surely transforming the country, and creating a 'new' Britain, would not be too difficult? Only towards the end of the first term did Blair wake up to reality: time was being squandered, and changing Britain was a more serious and difficult proposition than he had imagined. His personal record was all the more disappointing when measured against the advantages - a large majority, a united party and a strong economy - few incoming Prime Ministers have ever enjoyed.

By contrast, Gordon Brown's domestic record in the first term was impressive. Credit for Labour's governing credibility during it, moreover, owed much to his successful stewardship of the economy. Unlike Blair, Brown had thought deeply about what he wanted to achieve once in office. Beginning with the granting of independence to the Bank of England in his first days as Chancellor, a string of policy achievements flowed from his fertile mind and that of his close-knit team. Blair might have been in the top job, but in the first term Brown was the more creative and effective figure, as Blair reveals. He was the deeper thinker and strategist, a politician of extraordinary brilliance whose obsession with the succession had not yet damaged his performance and stature.

During the years 2001-07, the period covered by Blair Unbound, a different story emerges. If my earlier book was about the making of Tony Blair as a politician, this second volume tells the story of the emergence of Tony Blair as a leader, increasingly taking his own decisions and developing his own distinctive policy agenda. September 11th was a crucial milestone in Blair's political journey; he emerged a tougher and clearer leader in its wake. In this transition, he had to divest himself of many of those earlier supporters who had helped him on the way up, in favour of relying on steadier and more thoughtful figures like US and Northern Ireland specialist, Jonathan Powell; Sally Morgan, who after 2001 took over some of the female support role from the departed Anji Hunter; and David Hill, who succeeded Campbell as media chief in 2003. He also brought on Andrew Adonis, who more than any other person helped formulate his domestic policy agenda. Among the 'quartet', becoming his own man meant having to cut himself away from Campbell and Mandelson. By 2001, if not before, both had outlived their usefulness. They were obsessively focused on the short term, inflaming Blair's image in the media, sometimes damaging his relations with colleagues (with Mandelson more to blame) and detracting from his standing in the country at large because of their identification with spin. Blair was wholly to blame for his reliance on them. Campbell at least knew his time was up, and had been striving for a long time to leave, but Blair resisted. Only in the summer of 2003 did Blair finally consent to his departure. But his closest male friend stayed in touch, and played a crucial role behind the scenes in Blair's final years as Prime Minister. With Philip Gould, who equally bridged both camps, Campbell helped bring about a smooth transition to Brown, which had often looked a far from likely outcome.

What of Brown? By the second term it was time for Blair to face up to him if he was to succeed in developing his personal agenda, something Brown was keen to thwart. Twice he thought hard about replacing him at the Treasury, in 2001 and 2005: twice he pulled back. The second term saw bloody battles and the degeneration of their relationship. Only in the third term, however, did he push Brown to the brink, and finally prevail over him. Blair's final months also displayed a new element of assertiveness against another figure with whom he failed to be sufficiently firm in his premiership, President Bush. Blair's defence was always that if he had pushed Bush harder, he would have lost his voice, and that the concessions he extracted were very significant, though insufficiently recognised in Britain.

Blair took some bold steps in his first term, above all the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and Kosovo in 1999. But the bulk of his policy decisions did not come until after 2001, with the long-drawn-out evolution of his 'choice and diversity' agenda on public service reform, on Europe, after he abandoned the Euro in favour of a liberalising and activist policy agenda, and with his advocacy of greater urgency to combat climate change and poverty in Africa. Most controversial of all, of course, was his decision to join the United States in military action against Iraq in March 2003, which has been widely condemned across the political spectrum at home and abroad. Rather than merely join in the chorus of denunciation, Blair Unbound seeks instead to understand the decisions through the eyes of Blair, and what was politically possible and desirable for him at the time. What decisions did he take and why? What else could he have done? And what were the consequences of his decisions as best one can judge them in 2007? The picture that emerges is of a man standing up for what he believed to be right, in the face of enduring unpopularity, but falling short in his anticipation of what would befall Iraq after the invasion.

While Blair became a more impressive figure in 2001-07, Brown failed to build on the momentum of the first term. Many of Brown's creative ideas had been enacted by 2001. He itched to initiate more - but as Prime Minister, not Chancellor. He was right to defeat Blair on the Euro in 2003, as he had been in 1997, and to see off aspects of policy on foundation hospitals. But some of his resistance to Blair's public service reform agenda was motivated by personal animosity, and a...

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