by Kevin Meagher
Last week’s row over his telephone conversation with Rebekah Brooks and the alleged offer of behind-the scenes help doesn’t really tell us anything we did not already know about Tony Blair.
Even in retirement, he moves in rarefied circles and the lure of being at the centre of the action, (albeit in what he thought was a private capacity), helps dull the boredom of being just 60 and having his best political days long behind him.
Of course, there is no post-career plan that will ever satisfy someone like Tony Blair. The most accomplished political communicator of his generation and a figure who has single-handedly defined our understanding of the modern-day Premiership, his life after Number 10 was always going to be a long, protracted anti-climax.
What do you do when there are no more 4am moments, or press conferences to prep for, or crises in the Northern Ireland peace process that require your personal intervention?
Indeed, who actually made the phone call that Rebekah Brooks so assiduously took notes from? Did Blair himself phone and offer his services to her and the Murdochs? Or did he eagerly take Brooks’ call, knowing it was unlikely she was phoning for a catch-up to see how his role as the Quartet’s under-employed negotiator on the Middle East was shaping up?
Blair’s advice to her – establish a credible independent investigation with the aim of establishing wrong-doing, but hopefully not serious criminality – was smart and cynical, but pretty sound counsel nonetheless. He has a big future as a public affairs consultant.
But this revelation and the damage it has done to his reputation may prove to be a minor presentational blip compared to what is to come in the shape of Sir John Chilcot’s report into the circumstances in which Blair led the country to war in Iraq back in 2003.
Little is emerging to fuel the rumour mill, however this is the last – and seemingly most thorough – attempt to divine the circumstances that led to the invasion, looking at “the way decisions were made and actions taken…and to identify the lessons that can be learned.”
Although officials are reported to have blocked the unredacted release of sensitive communications between Blair and President Bush in the run-up to the war, it seems likely Sir John’s long-awaited report will deliver the harshest verdict yet for Blair.
How can it not? So far, he is two-nil up. Earlier inquiries conducted by Lords Hutton and Butler (into, respectively, the circumstances of Dr David Kelly’s death and the review of the intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction) merely provided glancing blows. Chief casualty of Hutton’s inquiry was, memorably, the BBC; while all a patrician mandarin like Robin Butler could muster in his inquiry was a banal and predictable criticism of Blair’s sofa government approach.
Chilcot is different. As Peter Mandelson, ever Blair’s outrider, warned back in December, the report is “a very difficult minefield”. Blair’s reputation and record have already become hopelessly polarised and Chilcot’s findings cannot fail to give succour to those who see him as a warmonger or vassal of US foreign policy.
Any destruction of what remains of Tony Blair’s reputation at the hands of Chilcot will delight his detractors who remain oblivious to his real and lasting successes, unable, even, to accept his realpolitik of stripping the Labour party of much of its vote-losing sentimentality.
Meanwhile, his supporters seem equally incapable of accepting he foolishly went along with a US administration absolutely hell-bent on invasion; oblivious to the fallout, politically or militarily, and completely unprepared for the humanitarian consequences.
Of course, none of this matters in US politics. George Bush and his neo-conservative acolytes suffer none of the toxic afterlife of Iraq in the way that Blair does. Most obviously, it kills-off any meaningful prospect of a top European job for him. Both the EU commission presidency and the presidency of the Council of Ministers are set to become free later this year (October and November, respectively). The wait for Chilcot – never mind the contents of the report – means Blair now has no realistic chance of either.
Being dragged into the phone-hacking mire is embarrassing, but it may be the least of Tony Blair’s problems this year.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut