Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Has any prime minister been quite so insulated from Parliament and Cabinet? Blair's solo performance last week, as he flew from Madrid to Libya to Brussels with his plane-load of captive journalists, was another reminder of how far Britain's foreign policy revolves around a single man; while the procession departing from No. 10 has left him personally more isolated. As I've been inspecting again the Anatomy of Britain, I've been looking for times when No. 10 was similarly holed up over the last half-century. It's true that Macmillan, Wilson and Thatcher were often accused of overcentralising power, but they all kept closer links with Parliament than has Blair, even in a crisis. The closest parallel was Sir Anthony Eden in 1956, as I'm reminded by his sympathetic new biographer D.R. Thorpe. Eden appeared similarly isolated after the Suez war - before the doctors came. In fact the Iraq war is now showing still more resemblances to Suez: both prime ministers ignored warnings from lawyers, diplomats and the military when they went to war. And contrary to popular myths about oil wars', they both ignored the interests of the oil companies. Eden claimed to be defending Britain's interests, yet the companies with most to lose, Shell and BP, were against the Suez war (as I realised when I later wrote a book about them). And a year ago Lord Browne of BP and Sir Philip Watts of Shell were likewise warning against a war which they feared would disrupt their supplies - with good reason, as the high oil-price now testifies.

No. 10 is certainly looking more like a fortress under siege; but the exception is Lord Falconer, whose relaxed metabolism seems immune to any worry. Blair clearly needs him not only as a loyal friend but also as a kind of court jester who can defuse any tension. 'Both Tony and Cherie can become quite tense,' as one friend described them, 'but Charlie is always laidback.' He visibly enjoys his new role of politician as opposed to QC, and is unfazed by the complaints of senior judges, headed by Lord Woolf. When I talked to him for my Anatomy he sounded like a Scots rationalist surveying strange English tribes. His father and grandfather, he explained, were dedicated solicitors in Scotland: it wouldn't have occurred to him to go into the law to make money. When I suggested that the educational background of English judges was too uniform, he replied, 'It's stunning.' I said, 'I assume we're talking off the record?' He replied, 'Oh no, I prefer talking on the record,' and extended his criticism: 'It's not plausible that there are not women equally good.' It was refreshing to hear a Lord Chancellor criticising his own profession so candidly. But isn't he in danger of playing into the hands of the real scourge of the judges, David Blunkett? There had been much more open criticism of judges in the Lord Chancellor's office, I was told by one civil servant there, since the departure of Lord Irvine - which has strengthened Blunkett's position.

Cherie Blair has found her own way of escaping the claustrophobia of No. 10. She's clearly taking very seriously her book on prime ministers' wives, which is being cowritten by her friend Lady Bragg. She has shown special interest in Clarissa Avon, the widow of Sir Anthony Eden, who has vivid memories of living through the Suez crisis. She has also talked to relations of Lady Dorothy Macmillan. And she even went to Salisbury to lunch with Ted Heath, to find out what it was like not to have a wife in No. …

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