Friday, November 2, 2007

'It’s all my fault’

From The Times
October 29, 2007

He went into the garden and began muttering ‘Iraq’ and ‘it’s all my fault’
Tony Blair’s election victory in 2005 was immediately followed by rebellion, a new biography reveals
Philip Webster, Political Editor

Tony Blair virtually regarded the result of the 2005 general election as a defeat for which he blamed himself and the Iraq war, according to a new biography.

As the early results suggested a much-reduced Labour majority, Mr Blair went into the garden and started muttering “It’s all my fault” and “Iraq”, the book reveals.

He accepted that it weakened his authority as Prime Minister to make the changes to the machinery of government that he wanted and to appoint the Government that he needed. And it further enfeebled him in his relationship with Gordon Brown, who had been persuaded late on to take a full part in the election campaign and grabbed most of the credit for winning a third term – albeit with the Labour majority cut from 167 to 64.

Astonishing revelations in Blair Unbound by Anthony Seldon suggest that Mr Brown regularly told Mr Blair to “F off” as the Prime Minister put forward possible ministerial changes in the reshuffle after the election, and that plans drawn up by his advisers to revamp the Treasury were blocked immediately. The biography paints an extraordinary picture of a prime minister impotent to do what he desired, despite having given Labour a record third term, as he crumbled in front of John Prescott and Mr Brown when they resisted his planned changes.

Before the election Mr Blair had again considered moving Mr Brown to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), but the Chancellor’s price for returning to the centre of the election campaign was to stay in his job, the book says.

It reveals that as the election results came in, a deeply depressed Mr Blair –who was with his family and friends at Myrobella, his constituency home – was completely unnerved when Labour lost Putney to the Conservatives at 12.35am. “If we lost this we are going to lose the lot,” he said to Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff.

Later he went out into the garden in the “freezing cold” with his long-time aides Alastair Campbell and Sally Morgan. According to the book, “he started muttering things such as ‘It’s all my fault’ and ‘Iraq’”. “It was a pretty grim hour or so,” Ms Morgan said.

The book describes how before the election Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, and John Birt, the former BBC Director-General who was brought in as a “blue skies” thinker by Mr Blair, drew up plans to reform the “overmighty Treasury”.

One plan was the creation of an Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which would be distinct from the Treasury and have responsibility for productivity and domestic spending, while the Treasury would be left in control of macroeconomic policy. Under this option the Treasury would be compensated for its loss by the sweetener of absorbing trade and competition policy from the Department of Trade and Industry.

According to the book: “The ultras hoped that Blair would not only adopt such a plan but also move Brown out to the FCO. Some saw this as setting Brown up for a fall, believing that he would not be able to make a success of running foreign policy. Blair certainly gave serious consideration to the OMB plan and of moving Brown. He ‘licensed and encouraged this work’, said one No 10 aide, ‘and was highly interested in where it was going’.”

As his Sedgefield result was declared in 2005 Mr Blair was attacked by an antiwar candidate who said he hoped that Mr Blair would visit wounded soldiers in hospital.

The book says: “With Cherie on the edge of tears ‘it clearly impacted very badly on him; it was the most visibly weak I had ever seen him,’ said one close aide. What was not known was that Blair had already visited and would continue to visit the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq. He had, however, taken steps to ensure that the media did not report this information. ‘I don’t want it to become political,’ he told one military officer, ‘and because I don’t want it to become political I’m prepared to take the hit from people that think I don’t visit.’ He did it ‘for the sake of his own conscience,’ said one official.”

The following extract picks up the election story on the day after polling. “‘The Prime Minister was dog-tired and felt very bad about the result,’ said one of his close team. It was Friday, May 6, his birthday, but not his happiest. He rallied himself in an effort to put his stamp on the reshuffle and to show who was in charge. Letters to ministers, including some significant switches, had been drafted and were ready for him to sign.

“The first meeting that morning was with Prescott. Blair planned to tell him that he would relinquish the communities and local government briefs in their entirety but he could remain as Deputy Prime Minister. Prescott refused point-blank. He took advantage of the Prime Minister feeling politically weak, said an observer. ‘Blair did not have the stomach for a fight’.

“His second meeting was with Brown. He put to him a watered-down plan of splitting the Treasury, but with the OMB reporting up through him. Brown rejected the idea outright. Blair’s much-reduced majority had squashed once and for all his hopes of doing anything to Brown against his will. Powell told a colleague that because of the results ‘you can forget the plans now. They won’t work’.

“Blair still had some leeway, however, and was adamant that he was going to promote modernisers in the reshuffle. This would be a Blairite government. The dual leadership of the preceding three weeks was now over. No 10 became enraged on Friday after the Brownites briefed the press that the results were bad for Labour and for Blair. ‘There was a pretty big rubbishing of it from the Brownites. That is what they do,’ said one of the Blair team who even went as far as to speculate that Brown wanted the reshuffle to fail. Brown had expected to be consulted fully in the reshuffle, and considered it to be part of the deal of him returning to the front line. ‘He really believed he had been told in the general election campaign that it was going to be different from now,’ said a Treasury official. He was right. He had been. Before the election results were known, Brown’s office had phoned No 10 to offer his services in the reshuffle.

“That Friday a number of subsequent phone calls took place between Blair and Brown. They were not the conversations Brown had been expecting. Blair had decided that he was going to move in on the Treasury appointments. ‘Isn’t it at last time to sack Dawn Primarolo [the Treasury minister, now Minister for Public Health]?’ Blair asked him. Brown reacted strongly to protect her. According to one official, their conversation followed the typical pattern at the time. ‘The Prime Minister would start off the conversation on the front foot and Gordon would respond simply by saying ‘F off’. Blair said he wanted his own nominee, John Hutton, to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Brown flatly refused, considering it an affront as Hutton was such a Blairite. He also rejected John Denham for the job. ‘I thought you said you [would] consult me over the whole government. You promised me. So this is it?’ said an indignant Brown.

“‘Gordon, it’s got to be my reshuffle,’ Blair responded. ‘I am the Prime Minister.’ In fact Blair’s team had never even discussed whether Brown should have been involved in the construction of the new Government. The Treasury very quickly got the message that the Chancellor was not going to be involved at all. ‘Their response was, “You bastards. We can’t trust you and we won’t trust you ever again,” kind of territory,’ said an official. ‘After the election Brown defaulted to “betrayal mode”’, said one observer. “Brown, not Blair, emerged as the primary victor of the 2005 election. At the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) meeting the following Monday, for the first time MPs stood up and challenged his leadership, saying that MPs had lost their seats because of his continuation as leader. Former minister Peter Kilfoyle put it to him directly that ‘the sooner he stood down the better off the party would be as he had become a negative factor’. There was a deadly silence. The mood was sombre. Blair responded that he needed time and space and MPs owed it to him to be loyal until the handover.

“But the stories began about how long he could and should survive. Coming on top of the unemphatic election results and the halfcock reshuffle, it was the worst possible start to the third term.”

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