June 29, 2012 7:22 pm

Tony Blair: an exclusive interview

Five years after leaving power, Tony Blair wants back in. He is ready for a big new role. But what exactly is driving him? And can he persuade the world to listen?
Tony Blair©Jillian Edelstein

We are sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Office of the Quartet Representative, Tony Blair’s part-time job mediating between Israelis and Palestinians. The sun is going down but the light is still dazzling. Trim and tanned, Blair is wearing his third shirt of the day, a white twill with a middle button unaccountably absent. To the left looms the Mount of Olives overlooking East Jerusalem; behind us, the Golden Dome of the Rock, built in AD 691 by Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan on top of the Second Jewish Temple. Blair’s youthful staff is expert in stage management, and the man they call “TB” or simply “Boss” is at his most fluent as he moves effortlessly across geopolitical time zones. Time to lob a gentle grenade …

Barber: “Some people would say, ‘He loved power; he was right on top of the world for 10 years, and now he wants to be top of the world in business; he’s very competitive, that’s why he never passes the ball on a football field; he loves scoring goals … ’”

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Blair: “That is not true! That really is a lie; whoever is telling you that is lying. That is not true. Get me my lawyer! Get my expensive American lawyer.”

Barber: “So are you prepared to go on the record and say that you are prepared to pass to people so that they can score goals?”

Blair: “I certainly am, partly because I was never very good at scoring them myself.”

Barber: “But you are very competitive.”

Blair: “Look, I am very competitive.”

Barber: “And you like making a lot of money … ”

Blair (exasperated): “This notion that I want to be a billionaire with a yacht; I don’t! I am never going to be part of the super-rich. I have no interest in that at all.”

Blair’s disclaimer is hard to square with the millions of pounds he has earned since leaving Downing Street, still less with the über-rich company he now keeps, including the Murdochs, assorted American evangelicals and Middle East potentates. So what exactly is driving Tony Blair, five years on from his reluctant departure as prime minister on June 27 2007 after a decade in power? Is it money, power or religion (he very publicly converted to Catholicism after leaving Downing Street); or is it something more basic: the desire to remain relevant, to be the centre of attention?

. . .

When he stepped down from power aged 54, Tony Blair rejected Bill Clinton’s advice to take a break and threw himself instead into multiple roles: philanthropist, statesman, mediator and financial fixer. “I did not want to leave, but having left I was not going to go into retirement.” Later, he says, defensively: “I am not just going around the boring speaking circuit, telling them jokes about what it was like meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace.”

Blair’s activities can be found on The Office of Tony Blair website: the African Governance Initiative; the Office of the Quartet Representative; the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, promoting tolerance and understanding among different religions; the Tony Blair Sports Foundation, helping youngsters in his political backyard in north-east England; and Breaking the Climate Deadlock, a foundation devoted to dealing with climate change. Conspicuously absent is any reference to Tony Blair Associates, the trading name of his business advisory service.

Tony Blair©Jillian Edelstein

Some of Blair’s closest friends say he has spread himself too thin. “He lacks focus,” says one, “someone needs to tell him – but there isn’t anyone around any more to do so.” These friends declined to be quoted for this article, but they worry privately that Blair’s multiple roles are an invitation to conflicts of interest, especially when it comes to taking money from despotic governments such as Kazakhstan. “There is always a fine line to be drawn between what is proper and where you are simply turning a blind eye,” says a senior Labour party figure.

Blair has promised to address these issues during our two-hour conversation in Jerusalem, and to deal with the vexed question of money, a source of criticism in the British media but also elsewhere. Earlier this year, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, told the FT that he had a “visceral contempt” for Blair on account of his moralising and money-making since leaving office.

Soon after he stepped down, Blair accepted an invitation to join JP Morgan’s international advisory board. The Wall Street investment bank now pays him about £2.5m a year (Blair refuses to state a precise number on or off the record). In return, he gives speeches and provides “strategic advice” to senior clients and the bank’s board. He occupies a similar role with Zurich Insurance Group, albeit at a lower fee. He gives speeches at a rate of up to $300,000 a session, depending on the location, according to aides. These interests comprise most of his personal portfolio. The corporate and tax arrangements were drawn up partly on the advice of Robert Barnett, the Washington super-lawyer who looked after Bill Clinton when he left office. Barnett also negotiated Clinton’s and Blair’s book deals. (A Journey was a bestseller in Britain and Blair later gave the £4m advance to the Royal British Legion, a veterans’ charity.) Unlike Clinton, Blair takes money directly from governments, and is not obliged to disclose the amounts (as he would be under US law). He also runs a lucrative private business consultancy, making introductions, opening doors and taking a cut on any future deals.

This notion that I want to be a billionaire with a yacht; I don’t! I am never going to be part of the super-rich

- Tony Blair

Blair uses his private business to subsidise his philanthropic work, which aides say consumes more than 50 per cent of his time: “Let me be absolutely clear. The purpose of these businesses is to generate value. How I then use what I take out of that is, you know [my own business] … the bit that is important to me is to build foundations of real scale.” Thus, the millions he is paid by the governments of Kazakhstan and Kuwait (again he declines to specify exactly how much) fund the pro-bono advisory work in Africa and the Faith Foundation run by his ex-Cabinet Office aide Ruth Turner. But surely Blair is deluding himself, I suggest. Governments such as Kazakhstan and Kuwait are not really interested in change; they are only interested in encouraging the perception of change. Indeed, former Downing Street colleagues such as Alastair Campbell and Tim Allan, who runs the Portland PR agency, are now joining him on the Kazakh gravy train. “No, it’s not that,” says Blair, citing valuable advice on judicial reform, decentralisation, one-industry towns and local government, the same reform agenda as pushed by the EU. “The purpose of this is not to make money, it’s to make a difference.”

Blair comes across as more thin-skinned than he was in power and he is keen to avoid any impression of impropriety. He says he pays the top income tax rate of 50 per cent. He was advised by KPMG accountants to set up a limited liability partnership which assured his business dealings could remain confidential. But he insisted that he would have nothing to do with tax avoidance. “We spend a fortune every year on lawyers and accountants in order to make sure everything is completely [compliant with the law].”

Lionel Barber and Tony Blair in East Jerusalem in June©Jillian Edelstein

Lionel Barber and Tony Blair in East Jerusalem in June

Blair also insists he is scrupulous about managing potential conflicts of interest. He does not, for example, do any business in Israel, the occupied territories, Egypt or Jordan. He is still sore about allegations that he was conflicted because JP Morgan advised the British Gas Group, which had an interest in the Gaza Marine gas development that he is promoting as Quartet Rep. He says JP Morgan advised the British Gas Group elsewhere in the world, that he has never discussed the matter and that Gaza Marine is potentially a vital source of energy to the occupied territories: “That ridiculous Channel 4 programme that should never have been made and was a complete waste of public money … a total invention.”

He is equally careful about his boutique advisory service, which is registered as Firerush Ventures No. 3 with the Financial Services Authority. To date it operates under a minor FSA licence in line with “very strong legal advice”. But that may change as the business scales up. Blair says his own role is “very limited” but the business is hiring “very smart” people from investment banking. The idea is to introduce sovereign wealth funds to invest in, say, clean technology ventures. “There is a very strong network of contacts built up today. A lot of our work is the sovereign funds [such as Abu Dhabi and China].”

As Blair Inc expands, some of his old colleagues have opted to maintain a discreet distance. Jonathan Powell, his long-term chief of staff, has had his name removed from the list of individuals authorised to act for Tony Blair Associates in the FSA register. Powell’s focus now is running Inter Mediate, a London-based body specialising in conflict resolution. He declined to comment for this article.

At present, Blair employs more than 150 people in his private business and his foundations. By the end of the year, he estimates that figure will rise to about 200: “That figure will grow significantly more in the next five years if I do not go on and do something else.” The caveat is revealing: however hard he is working (“harder than ever in my life”), however many millions he is making, however many air miles he is clocking up, Tony Blair still hankers after the power and prestige bestowed by public office.

. . .

I ask Blair how, with the benefit of hindsight, he views his record in government? Blair says that he should have been much more radical, especially in reforming public services. He later claims his second term was far better than his first. He omits reference to Iraq, which many consider his historic foreign policy blunder. Instead, he stresses how much he has learnt in the meantime about the way the world works. “In the Middle East, I have a far deeper understanding of what the issues are … that its politics is profoundly affected – in a way that I kind of superficially understood but didn’t understand profoundly enough – by religion.” This might sound glib coming from someone other than Blair, but his charm is disarming, his familiarity engaging.

He now divides the modern world between “the open-minded and closed-minded”. This division is as important as the old ideological struggle between left and right. The new battleground is the Middle East, between those willing to address their problems and those who blame them on “some sort of oppression or indignity visited upon them by someone else”.

How does his new insight apply to Afghanistan and Iraq, where along with his bosom ally President George W. Bush, he launched two wars of choice? “What is very clear now is that the problem is, when you take the lid off these deeply oppressive and dictatorial regimes, out comes the pouring of a whole lot of religious, tribal, cultural, ethnic poison, which is then multiplied by the actors in the region who are engaged on either side of this battle between modernisation and atavism.” Yet that was exactly what a small army of experts was telling him privately and publicly before the invasion of Iraq. So does he now accept they were right? Blair concedes the critique about invasions uncorking sectarian rivalry is “absolutely fair”, but it does not weaken the case for removing Saddam or diminish his general argument: that the age of the secular dictators is over and that the west cannot allow the ensuing power vacuum to be filled by radical Islam.

In Blair’s view, this lesson applies to Iraq, but also to Egypt, Libya, Syria and other countries convulsed by the Arab spring. He now favours evolutionary change, coaxing dictators to step down rather than stirring popular revolution. That prospect, he now concedes, probably never existed in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya; it has evaporated in President Assad’s Syria. Therefore it is time to consider intervention, not on the Iraq model, but “muscular, soft diplomacy combined with the judicious use of force” to protect the civilian population and create the space for economic and political reform.

Blair concedes he would now rewrite his famous 1999 Chicago speech that preached the virtues of intervention to protect human rights (inspired by British military successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone). But he insists the west must “will the means” to pursue sustained engagement, “very openly supporting economic modernisation, social modernisation”. This sounds suspiciously like a re-run of Afghanistan, where the US, its allies and others have spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to drag the country into the 21st century. Is this really feasible for an exhausted, indebted west? It sounds to me more like the stuff of Roman legions.

Blair shakes hand with Bedouin leaders on the West Bank©Jillian Edelstein

Blair with Bedouin leaders on the West Bank

We shift focus to Britain today and its relationship with continental Europe, which Blair believes is at a historic turning point. The eurozone crisis will force the EU into a new phase of integration and Britain must be at the negotiating table. He calls for a “grand bargain” in which Germany agrees to stand by the euro via a mutualisation of outstanding debt and inflation of their economy. In return, debtor countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain must agree to strict rules on public deficits and deep-seated reforms in the labour market, pensions and welfare.

All this must be accompanied by a commitment to growth. (“What Greece is going through is beyond tough.”) He is unfazed by critics who argue that austerity spells a deflation trap and the single currency is intrinsically flawed. The original design was faulty, he concedes, but a grand bargain can fix it. Indeed, he adds, even if the current 17-member club collapses, the euro will survive because the logic behind its creation is more powerful than ever.

“The rationale for Europe today is not peace; it is power. The rationale for Europe today is that [we are] in a geopolitical landscape that is rapidly changing, in which even a country the size of Germany, let alone France or the UK or Italy, is a fraction of the size of what are going to be the main geopolitical players. We can’t afford to be left on our own. We need the collective strength to advance individual interests.” Here speaks the proselytiser-in-chief. So why did Blair not become the first president of the European Union, rather than the self-effacing Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, who composes haikus in his spare time? “I sometimes wish now that when the presidency came up, I would have taken that position – and actually gone out on a more public campaign about what I thought about Europe.”

But surely he wanted the job handed to him on a silver Brussels platter? “No, it wasn’t even that. I was concerned as to whether I was going to get locked up in a bureaucracy that was going to be stifling and I did get a little alarmed about what the powers were going to be and what they were not and so on. But no – I would have taken the job. I would have taken it if I had been offered it.”

Sometimes the way the media talks, you’d think that I’d lost three elections rather than won them

Blair’s problem was that Angela Merkel of Germany (and other EU leaders) saw Blair as simply too big a personality – and after Iraq too controversial a figure – to occupy the new post. Blair faces the same dilemma as he weighs how to re-enter the British political debate after five years of self-imposed (relative) silence. Friends say he is desperate to play a bigger role, not because he has any ambition to run for high office but because he wants to be part of the argument. “He would really like to be the centre of attention again,” says one long-time ally. Another close friend says: “He feels like an alien in his own country. He feels despised – and that is very difficult for him.”

Blair fits Hillary Clinton’s 1998 description of President Bill Clinton: he is a hard dog to keep on the porch. He is manifestly more charismatic than Ed Miliband, his successor-but-one as Labour party leader; and he can frame an argument. But the centre of political gravity has shifted. Back in 1997, he led a modernised Labour party that left the Thatcher revolution undisturbed. Today, his New Labour reformist mantra grates in Britain but also in Europe after the election of Socialist president François Hollande. Post-crisis leftist parties are now less reformist, more inclined to regulation and more sceptical of business.

Blair responds breezily that Ed Miliband is “asking the right questions” and that it is understandable that Labour is undergoing a period of revisionism after something “as strong and all-encompassing” as New Labour. In the end, people will be forced back to the centre-ground, his so-called Third Way. “My point is that there should not be an after the Third Way. It is absolutely right now, slap-bang where the world should be.” And to drive his point home, he singles out emerging economies such as Brazil, Colombia and Rwanda.

One of the perils of modern politics, Blair says, is that we are engaged in “the era of the loud-mouth”. He goes on: “There is an interesting debate – in the west particularly – between the politics of the anger and the politics of the answer.” Naturally, TB places himself in the latter category.

Blair: “Sometimes the way the media talks, you’d think that I’d lost three elections rather than won them…”

Barber: “So what’s your route back?”

Blair: “I don’t know exactly.”

Barber: “But you want it. It’s clearly something that you feel ready [for].”

Blair: “Yes, I feel I’ve got something to say. If people want to listen, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s their choice … I would want to emphasise how fast the world around us is changing and how incredibly dangerous it is for us to think we can stand still.”

. . .

There is an urgency, even a frustration about Blair. He can see the future so why are so few people listening? He can still pull crowds in the US and in places like Kuwait and Kosovo. Blair still wants to be at the centre of attention. His job as Quartet Representative is a worthy but poor substitute.

Blair with Omar Kittaneh, chairman of the Palestinian Energy Authority©Jillian Edelstein

Blair with Omar Kittaneh, chairman of the Palestinian Energy Authority

The strike against Blair is that he is too pro-Israel. He stands accused of beautifying a continued expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Blair rejects the criticism, arguing that there will never be a viable Palestinian state unless the Palestinian economy and its institutions develop sufficient strength to make statehood the natural outcome of the negotiating process. But, I protest, there is no negotiating process. The peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are moribund. Ever the optimist, Blair points to the dismantling of barriers to trade, visible improvements in Palestinian standards of living and a shoring up of the Palestinian Authority since he was appointed to the role (on the same day he stepped down as prime minister).

Blair took on his unpaid Quartet role with high hopes that he could be involved directly in the peace talks. But the Americans would not countenance it. Neither his close relationship with President Bush nor with the Clintons could persuade the US to abandon its traditional broker role. Four years on, and after 86 trips to the region, friends say Blair has still not abandoned his dream of forging peace in the Middle East, through the sheer force of his personality. “Tony acquired a Messiah complex after the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland,” says a long-time associate. “He brings the same optimism to the Quartet job.”

Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu©Jillian Edelstein

Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu

Blair has a closer relationship with the Israeli leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu than perhaps anyone in the west. Having charmed the pants off Ian Paisley, he perhaps imagines he can repeat the act with Bibi. The question is: who is playing whom? Does Netanyahu see Blair as a useful cover for inaction? Does Blair’s influence with the Israelis ultimately depend on him asking for very little? The best guess is that he knows he has a weak hand and that ultimately the Americans have the most influence over the Israelis. Blair’s thankless task is to act as a bridge between the Palestinians and Israelis in order to keep hopes of a two-state solution alive.

Yet to believe that the Israelis and Palestinians can live together in two contiguous states requires a leap of faith. Blair is nothing if not a man of faith. So I ask him whether he feels contrition for the thousands of people who died during and after the invasion of Iraq. “Of course, I am sorry for the people … but large numbers of people were dying under Saddam. In fact – not that you should ever do this, but if you want to add it up – far more.”

Iraq still rankles. So does the decision to cut short his premiership in favour of handing power to his great collaborator-rival Gordon Brown. Ten years inside Downing Street was plainly not long enough for TB. Does he miss being prime minister? “Some days. Probably because I forget what it was like.” Then he realises his answer sounds phoney. “No, no, it’s the opposite. It is when there are big issues that you want to be there.”

Earlier that Saturday, I accompanied Tony Blair on a tour of the West Bank. We sped along in a presidential-style motorcade, past the Israeli settlements that pepper the landscape. Blair charmed his encircled Palestinian hosts, who treated him with deference. In the Jordan Valley, Bedouin children lined up to have their picture taken with the man denounced in some quarters as a war criminal. Blair barely put a foot wrong. The casual observer might have thought history had stopped: that Tony Blair was in all but name still prime minister.

Blair’s convoy of aides, interpreters and security guards heads to Ramallah©Jillian Edelstein

Blair’s convoy of aides, interpreters and security guards heads to Ramallah

In Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, Blair met Dr Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Central Elections Commission. Dr Nasser was just back from Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas remain in control. Aides brought out a local dessert called collage. Mindful of his figure (he goes to the gym virtually every day of the week, usually in the afternoons), Blair took a couple of mouthfuls and left the rest untouched. The meeting was friendly and businesslike, a useful forum for assessing tensions between the PA and Hamas, and testing the ground for future elections.

The next day, Blair went to the Knesset to see top Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the powerful defence minister. Again, he was treated with visible respect. Silvan Shalom, vice prime minister, told me that Blair’s role was vital in representing the interests of the Palestinians. “The last time my opposite number visited me, he had to resign the next day … Tony Blair is a friend of peace.”

Blair’s unspoken nightmare would be to succumb, Margaret Thatcher-like, to post-power depression. This may explain his multiple roles, his money-making and his slightly manic travel. Yet his most revealing admission is that he would give everything up for a big job.

In another life, says a long-time collaborator, Tony Blair would have been a rock star. And, true to form, he poses for more photographs as the interview draws to a close.

His aides signal time is running short. He has an appointment at 7.30pm. More clicks of the camera. Again an aide interrupts, this time to inform him that he has missed the evening Mass slot crammed into his tight schedule. (He went early the next day.)

A slightly pained expression flickers across Tony Blair’s face. And then he gathers himself for one last pose.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT

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