A Question of Honour
By Lord Michael Levy
Simon & Schuster £18.99, 320 pages
FT bookshop price: £15.19
Is there anyone left in New Labour not writing their memoirs? So far we’ve had Tony Blair’s wife, his deputy, his spin doctor (volume one), his deputy spin doctor, his PR guru, his economic policy adviser, his Washington ambassador, his first foreign secretary’s first wife and, of course, the man himself is soon to publish.
Readers must be left wondering what meat can be left on the festering carcase. Each new memoir serves simultaneously to diminish its author, its audience and the entire New Labour project.
The latest entrant into the field of hiss-and-tell memoirs is Lord Levy, Tony Blair’s chief fundraiser and the man at the centre of the “cash for peerages” scandal. Michael Levy – Labour’s so-called Lord Cashpoint – does at least have a reason to publish. He wants to answer the claims of honours-peddling. He wants the world to know that he is a straight guy and that giving money to political parties is an honourable activity motivated by the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, once he has made the case for his integrity there are still another 280 pages of the punningly titled A Question of Honour.
Lord Levy was a notable courtier in the Blair regime but he offers few interesting or untold insights. Maybe he is just being discreet. But somehow it doesn’t feel that way, given the cringe-making episodes he does reveal. There is a little low-grade score settling but almost nothing compelling on the way we conduct our politics.
In fact, there is an almost Pooterish quality to this memoir. On the day he hears he is to be arrested over the cash for peerages saga, we learn he is celebrating his 62nd birthday with his wife Gilda, her 83-year-old cousin Erika, his daughter Juliet and her partner Phil. His son does not merely get a degree, we hear all the details of class, subject and university.
The pity is that Lord Levy’s life story really is worth reading. His rise from humble East End Jewish roots to pop mogul, Labour peer and party bagman, ought to be inspiring. But he rattles through it as if ticking off items on an agenda. At one moment he is an ordinary accountant; the next he is hilariously trying to persuade Chris Rea to adopt the stage name Benny Santini. Only when he talks of his family or his work for Jewish charities does a real sense of enthusiasm show.
And then he meets Tony Blair. Lord Levy is honest enough to admit that he was seduced by being able to claim an acquaintance with the PM. Blair clearly identified him early as a valuable ally – perhaps he knew in advance of his fundraising skills. Soon the Blairs are spending most weekends at the Levys’. Not just Tony and Cherie – whose affection for rich men with a swimming pool is now well documented – but their children. And then the children are inviting their friends and you can’t help wondering how far Lord Levy will go to maintain the friendship and how much advantage the Blairs would take.
We learn almost nothing of the fundraising operation and see even less of the figures who shaped New Labour. Alastair Campbell, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson all feature so infrequently as to raise questions as to just how much of an insider Levy really was.
The same is true of his potentially fascinating role as Blair’s Middle East envoy. But Lord Levy has no gift for narrative. Moments such as his meetings with Syria’s ailing President Assad are somehow rendered sterile. He seems consumed with putting one over those career diplomats who carped at his role.
Lord Levy comes across as a Rosencrantz or Gildenstern figure, a useful wallet, tripping occasionally on to the stage of political history but seeing only a small part of the picture. Even in the final third of the book – devoted to the police investigation, which concluded without any charges being laid – he has little to say beyond rehashing known events and strongly protesting his innocence.
The most surprising revelation is that Lord Levy is, in fact, something of a political naif. He is shocked by Blair’s duplicity to Robin Cook, miffed when Blair withdraws an offer of a Privy Councillorship and deeply hurt when the PM calls in another fundraiser, Ronnie Cohen, without bothering to tell him, having decided that Lord Cashpoint is losing his touch. In fact, the selfishness of Tony Blair is emerging as a clear theme in all the recent memoirs.
The subliminal story is his hurt at Blair’s behaviour – at being made to realise he wasn’t quite the bosom buddy he thought; he was just another of those valuable people the prime minister was so good at suborning until they had rendered all the service they could.
Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s news editor
See the news pages for a review of ‘Speaking for Myself’ by Cherie Blair