Lunch with the FT

September 10, 2010 6:54 pm

Lunch with the FT: Tony Blair

Is it money, self-justification or the desire to be at the centre of things that motivates the former British prime minister?
An illustration of Tony Blair

I had hoped I might meet Tony Blair at one of London’s more bustling venues – mainly, I confess, because I wanted to measure the reaction of the throng. But the rules of Lunch with the FT leave the choice with the guest. So, after a certain amount of cloak and daggery, insisted upon by the police protection officers who still accompany him everywhere, I arrive at Blair’s local Italian, Locanda Locatelli.

It is one of those restaurants comfortable with celebrity. On a weekday lunchtime most tables seem to be occupied by business types but Madonna is said to be among the evening regulars. Our corner booth offers a panoramic view of polished wood, fabric wall coverings and soft leather banquettes. A head or two turns discreetly as Blair enters. No one is impolite enough to stare.

Britain’s former prime minister presents a conundrum. His memoir has invited torrents of invective from enemies (critics is much too soft a word) among metropolitan elites. Yet copies of A Journey are flying off the shelves as “real people” open their wallets to read Blair’s version of events. He did, after all, win three elections and put Britain back on the international stage. Then again, he also stood shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush in Iraq.

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Lunch with the FT

I am getting ahead of myself. The Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli is around the corner from Blair’s central London home. Its proprietor-chef Giorgio Locatelli, I will discover, is an exquisite cook. But first I concentrate on my guest. Blue suit, white shirt and no tie (I had worn one for the occasion), he is visibly at ease. The slings and arrows of media outrage don’t seem to have left any scars. He has just cancelled a signing at a bookstore in London because of promised disruption by protesters. But he’s still getting all those clicks on Amazon.

It cannot feel very nice, though, to have people call you a war criminal? Blair doesn’t blink. “I’ve always had a, I mean truthfully, a better relationship with the country than with the media because the media divides into a left and right of a pretty traditional sort. And the left always regard me as not sufficiently left and the right hate me because I win. Or I won.”

The style of, and reaction to, the book mirrors the division of opinion between liberal intelligentsia and voters. It’s racy. In places, it badly mangles the English language; the colloquialisms sometimes slip into cringe-making confessionals. We really don’t need to know about that night of unbridled passion with his wife Cherie. The book is everything, in other words, that the chatterati don’t like about Blair.

 

Yet it carries the reader along. There is plenty about politics and policy – more than in many political memoirs. He is way ahead on some things – particularly on what progressive politicians have to do to adapt to change; and, to my mind, profoundly mistaken on others, as in his reading of the struggle against violent Islamism. But A Journey reads as a story, not a chore.

“I wanted to write it in a different way and I wanted to write it in a way that is more open.” It was time for someone to explain that politicians are also human beings. “One of the worst things happening in politics today is this assault on politicians when they get … they do something that’s wrong or people think it wrong, or whatever, and yet no one actually sees it from the other side.”

He warms to the theme. “If you’re not careful what happens is your political leaders have to be all sort of buttoned up; meanwhile they’re subject to a degree of intrusion that in times gone by was completely unknown. I think it’s therefore quite helpful ... to understand that they are human beings and to understand things from their point of view.” That’s why he has now owned up to the inner fears that had often lain behind the apparently supreme confidence.

There is more to this than artifice dressed up as candour, or indeed the desire to speak directly to people over the head of a hostile media. He thinks he has something important to say about the tumultuous pace of change in the world, the west’s response to the rise of Asia, the future of centre-left politics.

“I want people to read me unmediated rather than mediated because I think if they read it they will at least understand what I’m trying to say and it’s very much a book that’s prospective in a sense, because a lot of what I’m saying ... is about where are we now and where we need to be.”

As we talk I am nibbling on Parmesan-infused grissini and picking small pieces from a basket of freshly baked bread. Blair resists the temptation. He likes to keep in shape. I have long abandoned such fantasies. Meanly, I take private satisfaction that the price he pays for keeping his weight down is to look his age.

The antipasti arrive. Blair has the salad of broad beans, rocket and ewe cheese. I hesitate before opting for the green bean salad with potato and truffle. The truffle always tips it. Mine is scrumptious. His salad likewise, says Blair. The plates go back scraped clean to Locatelli’s kitchen. “Local Italian” no longer seems an apt description of the cuisine on offer here.

We are sticking to sparkling water – a cue to tease my guest. He has admitted that as prime minister he fretted that an habitual whisky or gin followed by a couple of glasses of wine (sometimes even half a bottle!) over dinner left him close to the edge of alcohol dependency.

Guffaws all round. “All my friends have been saying it was quite the most pathetic and sad admission they’d ever come across. John Reid’s [a former cabinet colleague] comment was the best. Did you hear that? He said, ‘Where I come from in Glasgow they give more than that to the budgie.’”

There are moments in the book when Blair sounds almost melancholic. Politics, he explains, is lived backwards. Leaders are at their most powerful when they are least practised. Time brings experience but it also drains political capital.

He would have stayed on as prime minister had Gordon Brown, his chancellor and bitter rival, not forced the timing of his departure. Yet he bridles at the idea that he is now a lost soul. “That’s true ... I do say [I would have stayed] because I have the confidence to say it – without actually spending my life desperately troubled I’m not still there.” So he has gotten over not being prime minister? Yes. “I really don’t miss it. The only time I missed it was during the global financial crisis.” Ah yes, that would have been a moment for him to stride the world stage again. As it was, Brown got quite a lot of credit.

But, he says, “I’m happy to go out there doing the things I’m doing ... I’m fascinated by the Middle East peace process and I want to work on it. And my faith foundation is now operating in 15 different countries, I’ve got the Africa governance initiative, that’s operating in three African countries.” Then, of course, there are the speeches, the advisory work for a bank and the consultancy contracts for Tony Blair Associates.

Once during the lunch I think I off-balance him. I remind him that Peter Mandelson, a co-conspirator in the modernisation of his party, had once observed that New Labour was “intensely relaxed” about people becoming “filthy rich”. So how does Blair feel about living in private jets? Hasn’t he been seduced by the bling?

This evokes a pained frown. Most of his time, he protests, is spent on unpaid work – the role of Middle East envoy that a few days earlier had taken him to Barack Obama’s White House, his faith foundation, the work on governance in Africa and the rest. The speeches and the consultancy pay the bills for the pro bono.

“I would have been happy to carry on with being prime minister; I’ve been in public service for 25 years. I would have been happy taking the European job and going on a European salary ... I’d be happy to go back to a public service job one day but if I don’t I’ve got the ability to make money, and I make it, and I provide for my family and I can do the things that I believe in doing.” The proceeds of the book – something upwards of £4m – have been pledged to a military charity helping the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stuffy people like me are troubled by the idea of former prime ministers trading off their political careers. But Blair has a point. The flip-side of political leaders getting younger is that they retire in their prime. Can we really insist that fit fifty-somethings disappear into retirement or accept a cap on their earnings?

In any event, I don’t think the money is the motivation. What Blair really wants is to remain at the centre of things; to be a player. Wealth is an adjunct.

By now, we are finishing our main courses. I have opted for the day’s special – a sublime ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Blair nods approvingly at his char-grilled squid with chilli and garlic. Trying to trip him up reminds me why he was so good. When he was prime minister I used to see quite a lot of him. Before each encounter I would tell myself that this time I would not be bamboozled. Maddeningly, 20 minutes into the conversation, I would be thinking “Well, maybe he’s right after all.”

Blair told visitors to Downing Street what they wanted to hear – sometimes, as he admits in the book – bending the truth to that aim. I remember a colleague remarking that he “always believed what he said at the moment he said it”. So, you could add, did the visitors.

His gift, though, is about more than charm and the emotional intuition of a natural communicator. The big thing about Blair is that he knows how to frame an argument. Most politicians get lost in the foothills of tactics. He has a strategic brain – a view of the world – and the self-belief to follow it through.

The self-belief bit, of course, turned out to be his weakness as well as his strength. I would like to say that when the conversation turned to Iraq, I succeeded in pushing Blair up against a wall until he repented. I didn’t. Partly because I was ambivalent about the war at the time – I always thought getting rid of Saddam Hussein was rather a good thing. And partly because I deprecate the implicit assumption of many of the anti-war crowd that the world would be such a great place if Iraq and Iran were still fighting themselves to a standstill.

In any event he has heard the charges too many times to change his answers now: “We acted on the information that we had at the time; we also acted with a certain sense of urgency after September 11. I think people forget that.”

Yes, of course, he regrets the loss and damaged lives of the war but he is not going to say he regrets the decision to go to war. “We used to have a policy of supporting Saddam, to be a brake on Iran, and look what happened: it didn’t work, in the same way we actually armed some of the Mujahaddin in order to take on the Russians – it didn’t work, let’s learn the lesson.”

You could say Iraq tested to destruction his doctrine of liberal interventionism. On the other hand, are we to conclude that everything will be hunky-dory if only we leave the tyrants alone?

We opt for coffee rather than dessert, but it comes with a small selection of home-made sorbets and petit fours. This time I consider my waistline and stick, like Blair, with the sorbet.

Time is passing. Blair’s account of his titanic struggle with Gordon Brown grabbed even more headlines than Iraq. Some consider his description of his former colleague to be overly harsh; others wonder why he admits that, as prime minister, he did not feel strong enough to sack him.

The only point he makes now is that the struggle was more about the direction of the New Labour government than about who should be prime minister. “I think you need to make it clear there was a policy disagreement. People used to write this whole relationship up as if it was just a personal spat about a job – it wasn’t for me at all,” he says.

Our chef stands by the front desk as we leave. It’s my first lunch with a politician for a long time where the food has left a real impression. Usually it gets in the way.

Back in the office I pick up The New York Times to read the columnist Maureen Dowd’s take on the memoir. It seems I had been lunching with a delusional maniac. The thought occurs that perhaps I should have carted him off to Guantánamo. That’s the thing, though, about Blair. He awakens in many liberals the unhinged rage that Barack Obama draws from America’s Tea Party crowd. What to do, though, about all those people who are buying – even enjoying – his book?

Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator

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Locanda Locatelli

8 Seymour Street, London W1

Contribution to charity £1

Bottle sparkling water £3.50

Broad beans, rocket and ewe cheese salad £9.50

Green bean salad, potato and black truffle £16.50

Char-grilled squid, chilli and garlic £28

Ravioli with ricotta and spinach £12.50

Espresso x 2 £5

An assortment of sorbets and petit fours (on the house)

Total (including optional service) £90

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How successful has Blair been as Middle East envoy?

Of the many jobs and functions that Tony Blair has taken on since leaving 10 Downing Street, only one has provided the former British leader with any kind of international clout: his role as Middle East envoy, writes Tobias Buck.

 
Qadoura Mousa, Tony Blair and Silvan Shalom

Blair with Jenin governor Qadoura Mousa, left, and Israeli vice prime minister Silvan Shalom, 2009

Blair was appointed representative of the Middle East Quartet – the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia – almost immediately on leaving office in 2007. The post meant returning to a region where he is remembered, above all, for his role in the deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, a number of analysts and diplomats cautioned that this association made him an improbable figure to advance peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. That concern was gradually dispelled once Blair set up his office in Jerusalem's famous American Colony Hotel. He made an early impression on his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, who noted both his dedication and easy-going charm (a rare commodity in Middle Eastern political circles).

More importantly, it soon became clear that Blair had not arrived with the intention of remaking the Middle East. He was, in fact, never supposed to play the role of peacemaker: his Quartet mandate spells out clearly that his primary task is to help improve the governance of the Palestinian territories and boost the Palestinian economy. According to his advisers, this was the mandate Blair himself wanted, believing that economic growth and good governance were a crucial – and previously overlooked – part of the strategy to end decades of bloody conflict.

What it means in practice is that Blair has been engaged above all in unglamorous aspects of Middle East politics: persuading Israel to lift a checkpoint in the West Bank; getting the Israeli army to approve the shipment of sewage pipes to the Gaza Strip; or calling on Gulf sheikhs to increase their funding for the Palestinian Authority.

There is no doubt that both the Palestinian economy and the quality of Palestinian governance have improved drastically since Blair entered the arena. However, many observers say most of the credit for the recent upswing goes to Salam Fayyad, the US-educated economist who serves as Palestinian prime minister. Blair has certainly contributed, in his role as a facilitator and mediator between the two sides, to the economic and political improvements in the West Bank but it is not easy to quantify how influential his actions have been.

“It is hard to say,” replied one senior adviser to the Palestinian Authority when asked about Blair’s contribution. “Many people work on many issues, but every word helps. Blair has tried his best to be successful but it is not always easy.”

Tobias Buck is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief

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