Magazine article The Spectator

Neighbours Becoming Good Friends?

Magazine article The Spectator

Neighbours Becoming Good Friends?

Article excerpt

THE RIVALS by James Naughtie

Fourth Estate, 16.99, pp. 346,

ISBN 1841154733

What a pity that this engaging book should have to come out now, because war changes everything. It is difficult to believe that the twin towers of Downing Street will be the same after Tony Bair's much-vaunted global assault against terrorism, should it ever end. Blair knows that wars make or break prime ministers. He could go on to emulate Thatcher's Falklands victory and reap the rewards, or suffer Eden's humiliation at Suez. The stakes are very high. He is embarking on the gamble of a lifetime, and the outcome is far from certain. In this life-or-death struggle, the Brown-Blair contest for pre-eminence in the Labour Party, which has entertained the Westminster village for well nigh a decade, looks peevish and self-indulgent. It fails to pass the news editor's so what? test.

It is James Naughtie's bad luck that events, the ruination of so many politicians, have conspired to relegate the theme of this interesting book to a decidedly subordinate place in politics. He has some illuminating things to say, not least about Blair's preoccupation with war, and the making of it.

Blair comes back to it time and again. I remember interviewing him in Number 10 (for the first, and probably last, time), when he spoke of sleepless nights of anxiety while `our boys' were bombing Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities from a safe height hundreds of miles from the supposed war theatre in Kosovo. The fact that innocent Serb civilians were dying did not seem to bother him. He was surprised when I raised the matter, and mumbled an afterthought of bogus concern.

Naughtie reminds us how Blair tried to bounce Bill Clinton into sending ground troops to Yugoslavia, compelling the US President, of all people, to calm the crusader spirit in Downing Street. The same belligerent pose is evident today: Blair in an American bomber-jacket, grim-faced as he declares war on camera outside Number Ten. He is in his element, ready for a spell of what Waugh's Brigadier Ritchie-Hook liked to call 'biffing'.

Blair told the America Public Broadcasting System after the war against Milosevic: `The bottom line for me was that we can't lose this.' A similar obsession rules his relationship with Gordon Brown. He beat him for the leadership, and he is going to stay on top. Forget the talk of a deal, or an understanding (gentlemanly or otherwise) that Blair will step down at some future point and hand over to `my brilliant Chancellor, my Lloyd George'. …

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