1 Sep 2010

Tony Blair on Diana, fox hunting and Iraq

As Tony Blair’s newly published memoirs go on sale Channel 4 News finds in it a robust defence of Iraq, regret over the fox-hunting ban and the Queen cleaning up the former PM’s barbecue plate.

At 700 pages long, Tony Blair’s account of his political career, A Journey, covers the key events in his political life, beginning with his election as Labour leader in 1994. Channel 4 News picks out the key moments:

Blair on: Gordon Brown
It was an open secret in Westminster that the relationship between former prime minister Tony Blair, and his chancellor and successor Gordon Brown, was fractious.

In 1994, Mr Blair and Mr Brown, both ambitious men, made a pact. If Mr Brown would let Mr Blair run for leader uncontended, at some point in time Mr Blair would step aside for Mr Brown. This eventually happened – but it took 13 years.

During those 13 years, officially at least, it was sweetness and light between the two men. But in Tony Blair’s memoirs A Journey, he lifts the lid on the divisions between himself and Mr Brown.

During those 13 years, officially at least, it was sweetness and light between the two men. But in Tony Blair’s memoirs A Journey, he lifts the lid on the divisions between himself and Mr Brown.

“Was he difficult, at times maddening? Yes. But he was also strong, capable and brilliant, and those were qualities for which I never lost respect.”

He adds: “When it’s said that I should have sacked him, or demoted him, this takes no account of the fact that had I done so, the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilised and his ascent to the office of prime minister would probably have been even faster.”

Of Mr Brown’s character, he says he had: “Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr about the relationship, Mr Blair said it was “difficult” at times, particularly towards the end of his political career, but also “close”.

He said people had “overestimated” Mr Brown’s potential as prime minister before 2007, but then had perhaps “underestimated” it once the former chancellor was in the post.

Mr Blair says in the book he was powerless to prevent his successor moving from No 11 to No 10 Downing Street.

He says: “It is easy to say now, in the light of his tenure as prime minister, that I should have stopped it; at the time that would have been well nigh impossible.”

Blair on: Iraq

It's probably the most contentious issue of Mr Blair's premiership: the war in Iraq.

He did not apologise for Iraq at the Chilcot Inquiry, and the book contains no apology for the strategy either - although Mr Blair does write that he was "desperately sorry" for the people who have been killed and their relatives.

He says: "Tears, though there have been many, do not encompass it. I feel desperately sorry for them, sorry for the lives cut short, sorry for the families whose bereavement is made worse by the controversy over why their loved ones died, sorry for the utterly unfair selection that the loss should be theirs."

But he says he does not regret the decision to invade.

"On the basis of what we do know now, I still believe that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than removing him and that, terrible though the aftermath was, the reality of Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq would at least arguably be much worse."

His position remains the same, despite people thinking he is "delusional", the book says.

"I am unable to satisfy the desire even of some of my supporters, who would like me to say: it was a mistake but one made in good faith. Friends opposed to the war think I'm being obstinate; others, less friendly, think I'm delusional. To both I may say: keep an open mind."

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr that a military option may also be necessary for Iran.

Blair on: Princess Diana and the monarchy
For many, the death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997 was a defining, and incredibly sad, moment of the 1990s.

For the prime minister, it marked a moment when he struck a chord with a grieving nation with his now-famous “People’s Princess” speech.

In the book, he describes writing the speech with press secretary Alastair Campbell on the back of an envelope.

He tells how he was woken at 2am on August 31 1997 by a police officer at the end of his bed, who told him Diana had been badly injured.

He says he knew her chances were poor, and learned of her death at 4am. Without wanting to sound callous, he said he knew he needed to “manage” the situation.

Later on, he felt the Royal family’s lack of response to the death in the face of an outpouring of public grief was dangerous – and tried to warn them, although he felt some members of the establishment did not like who he was or what he represented.

Rather than speak to the Queen, he discussed the matter with the Prince of Wales, and the pair agreed the Queen would make a statement.

After the funeral, Mr Blair went to Balmoral, he writes, where he was ill at ease and would not have got through it without the stiff drink that was served up before dinner.

“I spoke, with passion, of the need to accept life’s lessons. I worried she found me presumptuous – she was a little haughty.”

A year later, Mr Blair and wife Cherie stayed at Balmoral again where the Royal family served the food at a barbecue, and did the dishes.

“You think I’m joking? You’re sitting in front of your empty plate and suddenly, the Queen clears it away for you,” he says.

Blair on: cash for honours

A Journey also touches on the "cash for honours" scandal, and Mr Blair writes that he feels he was effectively blackmailed by Gordon Brown over the issue.

The pair met to discuss Adair Turner's pension reform proposals.

Blair writes: "He began the conversation not by talking of pensions, but by saying how damaging the loans thing was: that there might have to be an NEC inquiry, and that he might have to call for one. I naturally said that would be incredibly damaging and inflammatory and on no account must he do it.

"The temperature, already well below freezing point, went arctic when he then said: well, it depends on this afternoon's meeting. If I would agree to shelve the Turner proposals, he would not do it. But if I persisted, he would," he adds.

Two hours later Labour treasurer Jack Dromey made a statement that led to Brown's threatened inquiry.

Blair on: his regrets
Regrets, he’s got a few – but some would say that they are not the right ones. In his memoirs, Mr Blair singles out two policies he regrets: the Freedom of Information Act, which he says is “not practical” for good government, and the ban on fox hunting.

He claims in the book he was “ignorant” about the sport and underestimated public feeling about it, and says he then deliberately sabotaged the Hunting Act to ensure there were loopholes which would allow the sport to continue.

“The passions aroused by the issue were primeval. If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia of every fifth pensions I’d have got less trouble… By the end of it, I felt like the damn fox,” he writes.

“I had a complete lapse. I didn’t ‘feel it’ either way. I didn’t feel how, for fox hunters, this was part of their way of life. I didn’t feel how, for those wanting a ban, this was fundamentally about cruelty. Result? Disaster.”

Blair on: drinking

The former prime minister's revelation in the book that he was beginning to see alcohol as a "prop" have come as a surprise to even his closest advisors.

Former press secretary Alastair Campbell said he was "genuinely surprised", adding: "I don't think I've ever seen Tony the worse for wear through drink, ever.

"I think what he says in the book is that there were times when he felt he was using it as something of a crutch."

The book says: "If you took the thing everyone always lies about - units per week - I was definitely at the outer limit.

"Stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it. So not excessively excessive. I had a limit. But I was aware that it had become a prop."

Blair on: Northern Ireland
One of Tony Blair’s proudest achievements, he writes in his memoirs that the Northern Ireland peace process was nearly derailed over a table for a key meeting.

The Democratic Unionists wanted the sides to sit opposite each other in order to “show they were still adversaries”, whereas Sinn Fein wanted everyone to sit next to each other “to show they were partners and equals”.

A compromise was reached when Downing Street suggested a diamond-shaped table, “so they could sit both opposite and with each other”.

He also says in the memoir that he had taken “horrendous” chances and stretched the truth “past breaking point” to keep the process on track.

Of course, the process may never even have begun if the views of one “leading Orangeman were taken into account, Mr Blair says.

“I remember before the 1997 election a leading Orangeman describing me as unfit to be prime minister because my wife was a painted jezebel who claimed her allegiance to Rome.”

Blair on politics and the future

The book also addresses Labour's loss in the 2010 election, and the future of the party.

"The response, I fear, is obvious. It won as New Labour. It lost by ceasing to be that," he said.

He also suggests that the Labour party should not swing to the left in selecting its new leader - a comment seen as a veiled endorsement of his protege, David Miliband.

"If we take this path, the next defeat will be even more stinging," he said.