Jason Reed/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chats with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as leaders gathered to deliver a joint statement on Middle East Peace talks in the East Room of the White House in Washington September 1.

Tony Blair memoir: I'd do Iraq again, and I considered firing Gordon Brown

In his new memoir, former British prime minister Tony Blair shares misgiving about the Iraq war – and catalogs his extensive struggles with then-finance minister Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair began his leadership as a dashing popular British Bill Clinton -- a fresh answer to “the suit,” as Fleet Street called John Major. After 2001, it all went sideways and Mr. Blair’s 10-year tenure terminated with him portrayed at home as a “lap dog” for President George Bush.

Now, as President Obama is attempting to bring closure to a war that largely contributed to Mr. Blair’s falling popularity, Blair is putting forth his version of events in a 700-page memoir titled “A Journey: My Political Life.”

Blair has two serious points for history. Point one: He may have misgivings about Iraq but he would do it again under the same circumstances. Blair hitched his star to a US White House whose vice president, Dick Cheney, Blair says, “Would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates.... He thought the world had to be made anew ... by force and with urgency.” Mr. Bush, he says, has “genuine integrity and as much political courage as any leader I ever met.” Blair also writes he once helped Bush identify Guy Verhofstadt, the prime minister of Belgium.

Point two is a more relishing reflection for British readers: He had nothing but problems with Gordon Brown, his finance minister, whom he politely excoriates as lacking imagination, whom he considered firing, who purportedly blackmailed him, who blocked his reform agenda, and whose own tenure as prime minister until last May, “was never going to work.”

The root of the problem between Mr. Brown and himself, Blair offers, is that “he thought I could be an empty vessel into which the liquid that was poured was manufactured and processed by him."

Brown’s defenders have jumped into the fray. Former Brown aid Michael Dugher says it is "slightly unkind and unfair" for Blair to brand Brown as a "strange guy" who lacked emotional intelligence. Mr. Dugher told the BBC, "I think Tony Blair was a much better actor than Gordon Brown and maybe in this modern media age that counts for something. I think that is an unfair characterization of Gordon Brown."

British media digs in

The book is naturally getting mined for all it can tell about the quirks and anomalies of life in 10 Downing. The British media are turning single paragraphs into headline stories.

Here is a sampling of some of the sections that have drawn the most scrutiny:

Blair describes a visit with the royal family as “intriguing, surreal and utterly freaky.” Gordon Brown once got locked in a bathroom and had to phone Blair to let him out. Blair was often driven to drink, but at least he wasn’t out with women. Lady Diana and he were both manipulators. In the midst of the Northern Ireland peace process, Blair lied, “stretched the truth past breaking point,” in order to prevent a collapse of talks. Blair’s wife, Cherie, had “this incredible instinct for offending the powerful, especially in the media, who were unfortunately far too well placed in taking revenge.” He would like to have toppled Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He tripped on the carpet on his first visit to Buckingham Palace – and so on.

Advance publicity for the memoir revolved around Blair’s decision to donate the British proceeds of the book to British Iraq war veterans. Blair’s US sales are expected to top the British sales, and the book is already in French at shops here. So with Blair’s stratospheric speaking fees – clocking in at $600,000 a speech, he made $20 million from 2007 to 2009 – he won’t lack in lunch money, although the funds for veterans is expected to be in the $5 million to $6 million range, which isn’t chicken feed, either.

An unconventional autobiography

This isn’t a conventional political autobiography, Blair says in the forward. He writes, ''There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the center of that history … and that is me.''

Last year, British reaction to Blair’s testimony at the Chilcot Inquiry on the war in Iraq decision was not kind to the former prime minister. Nevertheless, in his autobiography, Blair argues that he retains a bond of trust with many voters in Britain who feel he was doing his best. He offers a theory that voters distinguish between shallow politicians they universally distrust, “pretty much all of them,” and those they mistrust at a deeper level.

Blair, who says he has at heart a “rebel soul,” says one of his main regrets and misreading of public opinion was a 2004 ban on fox hunting in Great Britain: “By the end of it, I felt like the ... fox.”

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