Magazine article The Spectator

But Some People Don't like Tony

Magazine article The Spectator

But Some People Don't like Tony

Article excerpt

GORE VIDAL told us that whenever he heard of a friend's success, a little bit of him died. The Labour party is getting very fed up with Mr Blair's successes.

Its relationship to its leader has always been a convoluted mixture of pride that they could finally produce a winner and scepticism, verging on dislike, of the man who achieved the victory and enjoys the spoils. This time, it's worse because international conflicts are the political arena in which Mr Blair shines most. He is a walking example of the Nato alliance, believing strongly that America can use its force for the good, but diligently weaving a web of European support. Being Blair, he wants it both ways. Being Blair, he'll probably get it.

The revival of Britain's bridging role may have impressed George Bush, but it is anathema to his own party. It isn't just the usual suspects. Blair, moans one ex-minister `isn't content with being Prime Minister, he wants to be the leader of the free world'. Another rising Cabinet mid-ranker toes the line on television and radio, but when we begin to discuss the details off air, he starts muttering about `unclear war aims' and the 'possibility' of escalation and reprisal. In other words, he'll be onside when it comes to backing military action as long as it succeeds quickly and painlessly. Anything longer, more fraught and more, well, warlike and he's suddenly raising eyebrows and looking at a point in the middle distance.

Mr Blair is aware that even the loyal Labour ranks at Westminster are inserting this sort of small print into their support. Even those who are, on paper, in favour of military action to unearth bin Laden and unseat the Taleban in Afghanistan hedge their arguments with the limits of what should be done, rather than the determination to succeed. The grammar of Labour's conflict is full of subclauses. New Labour will support Blair if they can get bin Laden in a surgical strike but not if it means a broader assault on Afghanistan - and so on.

Faced with the prospect of being iffed and butted by the ingrates around him, Mr Blair has taken the straightforward way out and simply abandoned talking to most of his colleagues at all. Cabinet met once last Thursday for an hour and, as my mole at the far end of the table put it, `You looked at his face and the set of his shoulders and you just knew that the best thing to say was nothing at all.' L'etat - c'est lui.

Instead, he leans heavily on the Kosovo campaign 'A' team of Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell, and now joined by the urbane David Manning as the favourite Foreign Office import of the moment. Manning is head of European affairs and his closeness to Blair (he joined the PM, Powell and Campbell at the dinner with George Bush in Washington) is a sign of the Prime Minister's determination not to be cast as having `gone American' since 11 September.

Hence, too, the appearance of the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at the Labour conference. Mr Blair has his own longer war aims to consider, and one of them is to keep open his European flank, lest the opportunity to attempt euro entry should present itself in the next few years.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has to establish a working relationship with the PM to rival that of his wily predecessor Charles Guthrie, the most political of generals, whose nous impressed Blair during Kosovo. John Scarlett, the former head of security and a man of unstuffy but focused manner, has been appointed to the key post of chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, grading intelligence from the various agencies. …

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