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Blair: I knew Brown would be a 'disaster'

Tony Blair came to the view that Gordon Brown would be a disaster as prime minister and that Labour could not win the 2010 general election, he reveals in his long awaited memoirs.

"It was never going to work," Blair writes of Brown's three years in No 10, arguing that the former chancellor had "zero emotional intelligence" and fatally abandoned the New Labour formula.

Blair's memoir contains a passionate defence of the war in Iraq and of New Labour's public service and welfare reform plans, which the former prime minister believes his successor abandoned.

Although he refuses directly to endorse any candidate for the Labour leadership, he also makes a number of comments which are likely to be interpreted as criticism of Ed Miliband, vying with his brother David in a contest which reaches a climax as party members receive their ballot papers on Wednesday.

In the book and in his only pre-publication interview, Blair reveals that:

• Brown personally threatened to bring him down over the loans for honours scandal in 2006, before offering to stay his hand in return for the abandonment of Lord Turner's plans to reform pensions.

He feels intense "anguish" over the lives lost in the Iraq war and failed to "guess the nightmare that unfolded".

• He believes Labour was wrong to ban fox hunting and pass the freedom of information act which is "not practical" for good government.

Blair nails his policy colours to the mast in his memoir by launching a sustained attack on the belief that the financial crisis means that voters want the return of the state as a major economic player. In remarks that will be seen as an implied attack on Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, Blair says voters will not elect a party which fails to offer a credible attack on the deficit.

In the interview, the former prime minister says "I adore the Labour party" – but warns Labour that if its attack on the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition "defaults to a 'Tory cutters and Lib Dem collaborators' mantra", then it will win some short-term popularity, but not be elected to government.

Speaking to the Guardian before he left for White House talks on the Middle East peace process, Blair said that his 700-page memoir showed New Labour would in time come to be seen as a "great reforming government" in which Brown played a very significant positive part. But his book reveals numerous occasions on which the struggle between the two New Labour titans sapped the strength and direction of the government, leading Blair to delay his handover to his chancellor.

"It is easy to say now, in the light of his tenture as prime minister, that I should have stopped it," Blair writes. But he would have been wrong to have sacked Brown as chancellor or to have campaigned against him becoming Labour leader. "At his best, his intellect and energy were vast and beneficial to the country," Blair writes.

However, Blair confirms in his interview with the Guardian that he believed Brown would be a "disaster" as prime minister unless he committed himself to the New Labour path laid out by his predecessor. "Labour won when it was New Labour," Blair writes in his memoir. "It lost because it stopped being New Labour."

The fresh focus on the long-running battle between Blair and Brown, which dates back to just after the 1992 election, Blair's account confirms, is likely to dismay many in the Labour party as the contest for the leadership gets underway. Yet Blair insists in his book and his Guardian interview that the argument is not about personalities but about policies.

On Iraq, Blair offers no change of heart but gives his most detailed defence yet of the policy of overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. He writes emotionally of his anguish at not having anticipated "the nightmare that unfolded" after the initial success of toppling Saddam, and says he is devoting "a large part of the life left to me" to Middle East peace and interfaith reconciliation with the Muslim world.

He mounts a strong defence of the continuing war in Afghanistan and says that he would "not take a risk" of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear capability. However in his book Blair reveals that he "hesitated" before backing the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons in 2006.

Blair's outspoken remarks about the financial crisis and the aftermath of the British general election of 2010 in his book's postscript are likely to have a wide party political impact, especially his caution about any embrace of the view that "the state is back".

"The problem, I would say error, was in buying a package which combined deficit spending, heavy regulation, identifying banks as the malfeasants and jettisoning the reinvention of government in favour of the rehabilitation of government. The public understands the difference between the state being forced to intervene to stabilise the market and government back in fashion as a major actor in the economy."

Britain got what it wanted in May 2010, Blair claims – "a Tory version of a centrist government". A Labour-Lib Dem coalition was "never on" he argues. "2010 was one we were never going to win." Labour faces a danger of a drift to the left, Blair warns. If that is allowed to happen, it will lose even more conclusively in 2015.

World exclusive Tony Blair interview

It may seem as if Tony Blair has never really been away in the three years since he stepped down as prime minister in June 2007 after 10 years in Downing Street. A flood of books, continuing controversies and above all, the unquiet legacy of the 2003 Iraq war, mean that he is never far away from the headlines.

But that's not how Blair himself sees it. Currently spending the bulk of his time in the Middle East, his visits to Britain are often fleeting. He flew in from Jerusalem at the weekend and tonight he is already in Washington for White House talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In his own eyes, the publication of his 700-page memoir today marks Blair's re-entry into the British political debate after a period of self-imposed silence.

"My voice has been silent for three years deliberately," he says. But that will change, now that Labour is no longer in office and his memoir is hitting the streets. "I wrote it myself, in longhand," he says of the book. Those close to him say he is pleased with it and proud of his writing style. "I've got something to say and I've got something to explain, in a way," he told the Guardian in an exclusive eve-of-publication interview in his London offices this week.

The book, originally titled The Journey but now more modestly amended to A Journey, has ignited extremes of argument before anyone has read a word of it. Labour, with voting in its leadership election starting today, is awash with conspiracy theories about the timing. Anti-war campaigners have called for protests at his strictly security-controlled book signings. Blair's reputed £4m advance has been seen as further evidence of his eager embrace of a world of mega-wealth. His recent decision to donate everything he makes from the book to the Royal British Legion has been dismissed as blood money.

When such charges are put to him, Blair bridles. "People can say whatever they want to say," he adds. Giving the proceeds of the book to charity was "a decision I took as I was leaving office" and not more recently in response to a bad press, he insists. He says his intention was always to choose an armed forces charity.

"Everything I receive from the publisher I will give," Blair says. "It works out at roughly £4m because we didn't do a serialisation so there's a deduction from the original advance. It's roughly that. That's the minimum that they will get. Obviously if the book sells they'll get more than that."

Asked if more generally he has parlayed his position as prime minister for a jet-set lifestyle, he is again defiant. "You know I've probably worked harder now, or at least as hard, as I have ever worked," he says. "Now it's correct most of that is abroad, so I do spend a lot of time travelling. And it's correct I'm able to earn money. But as I always say to people I'm essentially a public service person."

Does having a lot of money matter to him? "No," he replies curtly. But then he adds that he understands why people might feel he is living in a different world from Labour voters. And at one level he is clearly out to win himself a new hearing, now that the party is in opposition.

"What people should understand is that I adore the Labour party," he says – a sentiment that will surprise many inexperienced Blair-watchers. Later he says: "As I say in my introduction, I feel the most enormous debt of gratitude to the Labour party and huge loyalty to it. I just want it to win. I want to see it win because I think that a modern progressive Labour party is better for the country than a Tory party."

If that is code for an endorsement of David Miliband in the leadership race, then Blair is not admitting to it. "I decided at the outset that I wasn't going to start endorsing people," he says. He is expected to take the same line when he is interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC2 tonight.

"People know where I stand in the Labour party and what I believe in," he adds. "But I don't want to get into the business of making formal endorsements and so on." Will he vote? "Yes, I am a member of the Labour party so I have the right to vote." Not quite a yes, but you get the impression that he will.

Those who turn first to the sections in the book on Iraq will discover a largely familiar account topped by Blair's most personal justification yet for the single most controversial decision he made as prime minister.

But they will find no apologies for the policy itself. "I don't seek agreement," he writes. "I seek merely an understanding that the arguments for and against were and remain more balanced than conventional wisdom suggests."

He writes that he felt "sick, a mixture of anger and anguish" when he was asked by the Iraq inquiry chair, Sir John Chilcot, in January if had regrets over Iraq. "Do they really suppose I don't care, don't feel, don't regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?" he writes.

Blair now says his book is "an opportunity to be more reflective" than he felt able to be at Chilcot, where he confined himself to accepting "responsibility". "You are trying to explain your feelings and you do so in a way that is more open and, yes, I think more reflective," he says.

In his book he writes that he wanted to reach out to the families of those who had been killed in Iraq. "I am now beyond the mere expression of compassion," he writes. "I feel words of condolence and sympathy to be entirely inadequate. They have died, and I, the decision-maker in the circumstances that led to their deaths, still live," the book continues.

"How could you possibly not feel sadness at the lives that had been lost?" Blair said this week. "How could you possibly not? But … when I use the word responsibility, I mean it in a profound way. I say in the book the term responsibility has its future as well as past tense. And that's what I feel. It's not a coincidence I am devoting a large part of my time now to the Middle East or to religious interfaith."

If Blair is more reflective in his approach to the aftermath of Iraq, his book pulls no punches on the radical Islamists who brought down the World Trade Centre in 2001. They posed and still pose "the fundamental security challenge of the 21st century", he says.

Asked the classic judge's question — if he would have done anything differently in retrospect — he replies it is "very difficult to answer that". But he wishes he had seen earlier that 9/11 had "far deeper roots" than he thought at the time.

"The reason for that, let me explain it, is that in my view what was shocking about September 11 was that it was 3,000 people killed in one day but it would have been 300,000 if they could have done it. That's the point ... I decided at that point that you cannot take a risk on this. This is why I am afraid, in relation to Iran, that I would not take a risk of them getting nuclear weapons capability. I wouldn't take it.

"Now other people may say, come on, the consequences of taking them on are too great, you've got to be so very careful, you'll simply upset everybody, you'll destabilise it. I understand all of those arguments. But I wouldn't take the risk of Iran with a nuclear weapon."

He is asked if he now thinks there should be a further inquest on Dr David Kelly. "I don't know. I don't really want to comment on it," he replies, clearly on his guard. Doesn't that suggest he may not want to face the question? He softens slightly. "I know nothing other than the information that we gave to Lord Hutton. I know nothing else. If somebody else does, that's obviously a matter for those people who take the decisions now, not me."

Blair admits that his reputation for integrity "never recovered" from the furore over Andrew Gilligan's charges about Labour's "sexed-up" Iraq dossier which led eventually to Kelly's death and the Hutton inquiry. But he is anxious to rebut the belief that the terrorist crisis after 9/11 led him to turn a blind eye, or worse, over torture of terrorist suspects.

"Well that's just not correct. One thing I want to say before the Guardian readership particularly is that this notion that I have ever condoned or would ever condone torture in any circumstances is complete rubbish," he responds.

"I totally disagree with it and I would never condone it, not in any circumstances. I think it is not just morally wrong. I think it is an extremely foolish and stupid way to try to gather information.

"I don't know where this has all come from. I don't know whether people in other countries, like the US, were doing these things. I honestly don't know. And therefore when people say 'Will you condemn it?' I say I'm not going to condemn something I really don't know about. But what I do know is that nobody in the UK system, as far as I know, would ever have either engaged in that or condoned it. I actually feel strongly about it, so it's just simply not true."

Some things about his record in office he does not defend. One is the Freedom of Information Act. "It's not practical for government," he says. "If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you're weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations. Everybody knows this in their walk of life. Whether you are in business – or running a newspaper – there are conversations you want to have preliminary to taking a decision that are frank .

"And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious. That's why it's not a sensible thing."

A second act of repentance is on the fox-hunting ban. Was it a mistake? "I think yes on balance it was in the end. Its not that I particularly like hunting or have ever engaged in it or would. I didn't quite understand, and I reproach myself for this, that for a group of people in our society in the countryside this was a fundamental part of their way of life." Blair accepts that the ban was "not one of my finest policy moments".

On the central domestic agenda of the Labour government, though, there is not just defiance but pride. Blair led "a great reforming government" he says.

"If there is anything I have to say to the Labour party today about the period I was in government it is it was a hugely progressive era." He cites investment in health and education, the minimum wage, civil partnership, maternity pay and paternity leave. "Where was the national health service as an issue?" in the 2010 election, he asks rhetorically. Answering his own question he says it didn't feature – for almost the first election in Blair's lifetime, he points out – because Labour had "sorted the basic problem". A huge achievement, he says.

Yet the central theme of Blair's account is not just pride in Labour's achievements but a sense of frustration that things did not go further, faster and better, all of which are bound up in Blair's richly complex and contradictory relationship with Gordon Brown.

Even today, as the dust begins to settle on the Blair-Brown era, Blair's view of his chancellor and successor remains an unresolved one, to put it mildly.

In his book, Blair gives a detailed account of what he calls the "ugliest meeting" he ever had with Brown. It took place, one-to-one, on the morning of 15 March 2006, just before Blair and Brown were due to sit down with the then pensions secretary, John Hutton, to discuss the implementation of Adair Turner's report on pensions.

Turner's report proposed re-indexing the state pension to earnings, a move supported by Blair and Hutton, but opposed by Brown. But it took place against the backdrop of the police investigation into the so-called "loans-for-honours" scandal.

"When Gordon came in [to the earlier Blair-Brown meeting] he was in venomous mood," writes Blair. At the meeting Brown said that the loans scandal was so damaging that he was contemplating calling for an inquiry by Labour's national executive. Blair, who says he was "stunned" by Brown's suggestions, told him that would be incredibly damaging. Brown then countered that he would call off the inquiry providing that Blair and Hutton shelved the Turner proposals.

Blair refused to give in to the threat. The meeting with Hutton on Turner went ahead and the report was upheld. That evening, the Labour treasurer Jack Dromey, a Brown ally, gave a series of interviews attacking the loans furore. From that day on, Blair writes "our relations were on a different footing".

"I did think a lot" about whether to tell this story, Blair said this week. "Look, towards the end it got extremely difficult and there's no point denying that," he said. So difficult, indeed, that at one point in his book, Blair says he concluded that unless Brown defined himself as his New Labour successor his premiership "was going to be a disaster. I knew it."

Pressed to explain why, Blair said this week that in 2006 he had felt that: "Yes, it may be fine for me to move on, but in the end we had to keep the idea of a modern progressive Labour party, at the cutting edge of the future ... And if we departed from that, it was going to be a disaster. We were going to lose if we did that."

Now that Labour has indeed lost, Blair clearly feels free to give voice to his criticisms, even while staying loyal to Brown in other ways. "I think the danger with Gordon now is that, people having underestimated the difficulty with him when I was prime minister, they are in danger of underestimating the strength now that he's had his own period as prime minister. The truth is he was and is someone of extraordinary ability, capacity, energy, determination and made a huge contribution to the government. Now, in that last period it became difficult, very difficult, because we were disagreeing about fundamental areas of policy, on reform."

At the end of his book, Blair offers a postscript on more recent events, including the handling of the financial crisis and the future of the Afghan conflict. His views are in stark contrast to much of the debate currently raging in the Labour party as it proceeds to choose its new leader.

"I think the single biggest danger with the financial crisis was a view that gripped a lot of progressive politicians that somehow people were going to want the state to come back in fashion," he says in his interview. "I didn't think that and don't think that. I personally think – and that's why I am still an advocate of third way politics – that there is a concept of the state that is strategic and empowering that is actually the right idea.

"I'm not in favour of the big state and not in favour of the minimal state. I think there is a concept of a reformed and reinvented government that is where myself and Bill Clinton were in the early 21st century that I still think is the right idea.

"Let me ask this question: look round the world today and how many progressive parties are succeeding at the moment? I mean in Europe or what's just happened in Australia it's a challenge, and it's a challenge partly because the progressive forces in politics are in danger of misreading the financial crisis as meaning people want the state back.

"They don't. They are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the state coming in to stabilise the situation and the state coming in and acting as a principal actor in the economy. And in my view they won't vote for that

And he ends with a warning to the party he says he adores. If Labour defaults to an attack on "Tory cutters and Lib Dem collaborators", Blair says, it may win some quick popularity but will not be elected. "You've got to provide a strong way out of the deficit," he says. "How you withdraw your stimulus is, let me put it this way, a right versus wrong issue not a right versus left issue. Now the composition of spending and whether your policies on public services reform and welfare help the poorest or not, that's absolutely right versus left. But on the deficit itself it's right versus wrong. You've got to have a way out of it and it's got to be credible … If you simply say no you aren't going to succeed."

Blair may or may not have ever gone away. But he is certainly back.

Source: one, two.
Tags: evil, gordon brown, tony blair, uk
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