Archive for January, 2009

Politicians

Tony Blair on Gaza, Catholicism, Iraq and Cherie

The Times, January 31, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Since leaving office 19 months ago, Tony Blair has rebuilt a life almost as frantic and globetrotting as the one he lived in Downing Street. Amid criticism of his role in the Middle East peace process, Ginny Dougary and photographer Nick Danziger join the former Prime Minister on the road to discuss Gaza, Catholicism, doubt, Iraq, money and Cherie

Tony Blair
Photo: Nick Danziger

It’s an exhausting business interviewing Tony Blair. For a start, everyone has an opinion about him and feels the need to express it, usually with some force. Cab drivers, handymen and the like – certainly in the UK – call him all sorts of unprintable names. Their main complaint is Iraq, as is everyone else’s, but they also blame him for the spend-spend-spend culture which in their opinion has landed us in the mess we’re in now.

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Move from the hectoring to the chattering classes and the arguments against him become even more vociferous. The general impression, however unfair, is that he has singlehandedly failed to bring peace to the Middle East, has achieved nothing in his role there as special envoy, earns far too much money, owns too many houses, and swans around the world raking in the loot for consultancies and speeches, probably at the taxpayers’ expense.

This anti-Blair hostility could not be more different to the reception I witness him receive in Israel and, indeed, more surprisingly, Palestine – such as it is – where he is hugged, kissed, implored to pose for innumerable photos and sign autographs. All of this is before the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza. When I ask him what it feels like to be so love-bombed, he mutters, and it is hard to read the expression on his face: “Well, someone’s got to love me.” One of his bodyguards tells me that these pop-star scenes happen wherever “the Boss” travels in the world, except for one country. But even here, Blair says, it’s better than it was.

His staff – there are 70 of them around the globe – are all young and dynamic and fiercely bright. They seem to do everything – think, talk, move – at three times the speed of normal human beings. Blair’s team in Rwanda, one of two charity-funded African projects, whose brief is to assist President Kagame in modernising his country, is particularly peppy. Then there is Blair himself, who has positively bionic energy levels and sometimes gets a kick out of other people’s failure to keep up. He doesn’t like it much, not surprisingly, when I teasingly (but truthfully) say that, in this way, he reminds me of Jeffrey Archer.

Blair has always struck me as a man in a hurry, only now he seems to be in a race almost against himself. In one of our interviews, I ask him the childlike question: does he want to save the world? (This was also before Gordon Brown inadvertently revealed his own Superman aspirations.) Blair, who quite likes the simplicity of such questions, laughs and replies: “I wouldn’t be in politics unless I thought there was a specific purpose of making the world a better place. So the childish answer to the childish question is, ‘Yes.’” He goes on to say something that would have been rather unpolitic to express when he was Prime Minister: “I don’t actually like the business of politics at all. Some people like the political interplay of working it all out. Even though – although I say it myself – I can do the political campaigning pretty well, I never actually enjoyed it. I’m far more interested in the problem; in solving the problem.”

Those problems take on tragic proportions a month after our trip, when Hamas fails to renew the six-month ceasefire and sends more rockets into Israel, with devastating repercussions. Blair was at home in the country with his family over Christmas but, he tells me, “I was on the phone to the Arabs, the Americans and the Israelis the whole time.” He returned to the Middle East on January 2 and says, when he phones me later from Abu Dhabi, that he has been on four or five separate visits to the region in a fortnight.

I ask him whether he is surprised by what has happened, since the previous month he had been cautiously optimistic about progress, but he says: “No. I’ve been saying for some time that what was needed was a completely different strategy. What has happened has been very shocking and very sad – the scenes of carnage – but that is war, I’m afraid, and war is horrible. But although it may sound absurd, on one level, to talk about the possibility of peace, we have got to get that process right back on track.”

That process should be helped immeasurably by President Obama’s early appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as full-time envoy in the Middle East. Mitchell and Blair go back a long way, having worked closely together on brokering the historic peace deal in Northern Ireland, and when I meet our former PM for a final time as we go to press, it is clear from the tenor of his conversation that he believes this will strengthen rather than sideline his position: “First of all, it’s obviously good for me because we’ve worked together so closely, but also because I think he’s a very sensible, wise, but also tough person. And in relation to Gaza, we will have a better chance of getting a strategy there that offers people the possibility of rejoining the West Bank on the right terms.”

During our five days together in mid-November, and in several meetings subsequently, there is ample opportunity to observe the former PM at close quarters – and we speak often, in short, snatched bursts and longer one-to-one sessions. Although he is always relaxed – as he seems, indeed, in all the sessions that I am able to witness with the heads of state of the various countries on our trip – it is only when he has a chance to unwind, without constant interruptions, that you glimpse his humanity unmasked by that slightly all-too-ready actorish fluency.

Blair’s schedule is as lunatic, if not more so, than when he was in office, but he’s a different man to the one we were accustomed to seeing in the final stretch of his tenure. The look of bruised defiance and exhaustion which shadowed his eyes has been replaced with that old bright blue sparkle of optimistic certainty. He seems happy.

There is something about him that makes me think of a man caught in the grip of a postponed midlife crisis, in a positive as well as a disconcerting sense. He has the glow of the newly-in-love; in love with the world and, for the most part, the feeling is reciprocated.

There is also something of a grand folie – however important the work and the seriousness of his approach – about the Herculean scale of the task he has set himself: sorting out the Middle East, Africa, climate change, his sports foundation, his faith foundation, “making a case for faith as a force for good in the world”. And in order to be able to do this work pro bono (as well as keep up his hefty mortgage payments and make good his debts), he needs to generate an enormous income – estimated at £12 million since he left office. He’s achieved this by giving speeches (Blair is said to be the highest-paid speaker in the world, earning a reported $250,000 for a 90-minute talk), a teaching stint at Yale (on faith and globalisation), as well as delivering what he describes, with an almost embarrassed ironic flourish, as “my memoirs”. All of which might help to explain why, at 55, he’s in such a hurry.

When I ask Blair how often he manages to see his wife and son Leo, now 8, he replies: “At the moment, not nearly as much as I should. I know…” Honestly, Tony, I scold him, do you want your marriage to fail? “No, I don’t!” An easy laugh. “There’s clearly got to be a major recalibration.” Is Cherie not saying to you, “Hey!” More laughter: “Yes, she is.” Don’t you miss her? “Of course I miss her!” I say that he’s always seemed to go at things at a breakneck speed, but now there seems to be an added urgency to his frenetic pace. “Well, it is partly true,” he concedes, “but it’s also because I’m building a new life. When we left [Downing Street], all I had was a mobile phone and Vic and Catherine [his old staffers] and even they weren’t getting paid.

“Eighteen months on, we’ve got 70-odd people around the world employed in various guises, and offices in the centre of London, and my two foundations established. So I’m starting, like, a whole new enterprise. But I wouldn’t be happy any other way.”

If there’s one, somewhat irreverent, lingering snapshot that exemplifies Tony Blair’s time management, it’s of him walking past my seat on the James Bond-ish Gulfstream IV – all cream leather upholstery and burnished gold accoutrements – distractedly undressing on the way to the loo, white linen shirt out, flies undone, although he flatly denies the latter when I later point it out.

His body language is interesting. Although recent photographs reveal a slackening of that resolute jaw line, Blair still manages to retain a movie-star glamour. But when he is tired or off-guard, his left foot has a tendency to turn inwards which gives him an oddly vulnerable, pigeon-toed gait. Sitting behind him on the plane, with his socks runkled down to reveal a stretch of bare ankle, this was particularly pronounced, and as he scribbled and scratched away revising a chapter of his memoirs, he resembled a schoolboy swotting away at his homework.

All the hours in the gym have paid off – the Blairs have installed one in their London home – and our former PM now has a positively streamlined physique. He holds himself occasionally like someone who has recently shed a lot of weight; with a mixture of pride but because he is temperamentally disinclined towards strutting, also a slightly conflicting awkwardness.

I am surprised by an occasional theatrical tendency: he calls his female staffers “darling” and, by day two, I, too, have become one of his darlings. I also catch him using the c-word to the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (the punchline of a jokey anecdote) and he reveals that what I had apparently mistaken for flashes of intolerance are what his son Leo refers to as “a Daddy moment”, when he “zones out… which drives Cherie mad”.

There is a new sense of weightlessness at a deeper level, as well. Unshackled from the burden of office, Blair should be free to express himself in whatever way he pleases, but he is still feeling his way in this regard. It’s an intriguing time to capture him; the wings are definitely unfurled but he hasn’t quite got the confidence yet to take flight. I still feel the intervening presence of Alastair Campbell admonishing him that, “We don’t do God!” when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism, for instance.

Still, he does eventually talk in a far less buttoned-up way about various subjects that were off-limits in the past – from what attracted him to Cherie to his doubts and deep anxieties over Iraq and Dr David Kelly’s untimely death, his own background and what formed him, and so on. We spend a great deal of time, inevitably, discussing the seeming intractability of the Middle Eastern conflict and his view of the new world order.

It’s important to remember, when reading the criticisms of Blair not making an impact on the peace process, particularly in light of the past weeks’ warfare, that his remit as Quartet’s special Middle East envoy is to work for the Palestinians on law and order, strengthening its security capability and developing its economy, to prepare them for statehood. “It isn’t to do the political negotiation,” he says. “However the whole thing is so intermingled and the one thing I never have a problem with is talking about politics with anyone.”

Our first full day together starts with a breakfast meeting with Ehud Olmert. When Blair introduces us, Olmert wraps his guest in a bear hug, strokes his neck and declares, “I love this guy!” TB then has short sessions with all the key players: Benjamin Netanyahu (former Israeli Prime Minister, chairman of the opposition, and hardliner; tipped to be next PM); Tzipi Livni (foreign minister, and acting Prime Minister); Lt General Ashkenazi (Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces); and Ehud Barak (Defence Minister).

What does Blair hope to achieve by such brief encounters: is it just a general bonding exercise to facilitate better communications? “Particularly at this moment in time, when you’re working up to an Israeli election and a new President of the United States, it’s about working out where people really are, what it is they’re hoping for and what are the prospects of them being serious about negotiation for peace,” he says. “And, actually, today has been good in the sense that I’ve met all the key Israeli players and all of them are saying at least – and I think meaning – that they want to continue with the process of negotiation, and that they understand the need to make the changes to help the Palestinians do it.”

This was just six weeks before the outbreak of war. When I later ask Blair about the Israeli action, he says, “The Israelis did not want to go in at this point in time, but it was Hamas who did not renew the truce and it was Hamas who started firing rockets.”

Is it right to think that the key to moving ahead is to get both sides – and, crucially, Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist – to concede to the two-state solution and then to build on the precise terms from that base? “That is one thing, but if I have made any contribution to this in the last year in terms of strategy, it is an understanding that that in itself is not enough. The difficult thing is that what each side says about the other is true,” Blair says. “The Israelis have a genuine security problem and the Palestinians have a genuine problem with the Israeli occupation, and those two things are linked, so unless you find a way to work out that problem you’ll never get a political negotiation to succeed.”

There are useful parallels, here, that can be drawn from the long, frustrating years of negotiating the peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland – which once seemed as impossible to resolve as the Middle East conflict does now. “In the end, we got the IRA to a minimum point – and the minimum point was an acceptance that a united Ireland could only be achieved by exclusively peaceful means. Some people would say the sad thing about Northern Ireland was that it took a state of exhaustion on both sides for them to eventually agree, but I think it’s more that the IRA came to an understanding that, just as the British couldn’t beat them militarily, they couldn’t beat the British.”

When will you feel real frustration if you don’t see real progress? “We won’t get a new Israeli government probably until March – so probably this time next year [November 2009]. But in the meantime, there’s lots you can do.”

The next day offers an opportunity to witness what Blair means. We head off in convoy through the arid, stubbled landscape, pale ochre earth dotted with olive and almond trees, the homes looking more ramshackle and poorer as we approach Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Blair is to address the leaders of the new security force, as part of an initiative he has been working on with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and the US generals Jim Jones and Keith Dayton. The atmosphere is sombre, even uneasy, and Blair is going to have to work hard to convince his audience that he really is on their side.

As he takes to the stage, Blair opens with the greeting of “Salaam alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) and a few of the men smile as they reply, “Alaykum as-salaam” (“And upon you be peace”). It’s an extraordinary speech, with no notes, and demonstrates our former PM at his most heartfelt, engaging best.

After explaining his role in Quartet (a grouping of the UN, EU, Russian Federation and the US set up to encourage the Middle East peace process, for which Blair acts – unpaid, he says – as special envoy), he talks about his work over the past year and how well he knows “the problems, the challenges and, indeed, the injustices that the Palestinian people face”. He highlights the importance of people being able to live freely in their own land but notes that, “A state is not just about a homeland, it is not just a map; a state is also a frame of mind,” and draws on the role he played in Northern Ireland, establishing an agreement and an authority and rule of law that was recognised by all the people, not just some of the people.

“There will be many challenges ahead, not least the occupation – but I know you have the will and determination to take your place in the community of independent nations… and I want to say to you that whatever we can do to help, we will… and that our desire in the international community is that bit by bit the occupation will be lifted, and that our aim is to support you as you build your state.”

After respectful but unecstatic applause, he is asked: “Why didn’t this happen when you were in power, Your Excellency?” which gets a big laugh. Blair joins in and pulls one of his Rory Bremner gee-whiz facial shrugs: “I knew I was going to get some interesting questions! Actually, I was interested in Palestine but I had quite a lot of law and order problems in my own country,” which gets another laugh, and the mood of the audience shifts towards him. “It was my aspiration as Prime Minister [to address the Palestinian predicament] but now it’s my mission.”

As more questions are asked, Blair rattles off the funds that have been raised to illustrate the level of support worldwide and addresses the humanitarian suffering in Gaza. He mentions his talks with the Egyptians in Sharm el-Sheikh, whose leaders are acting as go-betweens with Hamas, as well as his communications with Barack Obama, “who has assured me personally that the issues here will be a priority right from the beginning of his administration”. By now, his suit jacket is undone, his eyes are wide with conviction and the hand gestures are multiplying. After many more questions, he concludes: “We have got to be the people here whose hearts are up and that is the only way forward.” Afterwards, there are amazing scenes as Blair is surrounded by the men who looked so leaden and impassive when he arrived. They all want to shake his hand, and everyone wants to be photographed with their heads cocked towards his. He grins and grins; his teeth clenching and unclenching.

Later we reconvene for another interview back in the American Colony hotel, Blair’s apparently luxurious digs, an oasis of slightly faded splendour surrounded by potholed, derelict streets. Before we return to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it seems worth revisiting how Blair’s views have developed towards the region from his early days as Prime Minister. It is clear, at least, that he wasn’t doing some sort of PR spin when he told the Palestinians that he was always interested in their plight.

In 2002, for instance, Blair was at odds with George Bush over the Middle East – despite being called his poodle – and distanced himself from the US President’s call for Arafat to be ousted, saying: “It’s for the Palestinians to elect their own leaders. We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians.” Blair was criticised for his pro-Arab stance after urging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue peace talks after suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. In 2003-4, the Israelis under Sharon withdrew from Gaza; Israeli settlers who refused to budge were forcibly removed by Israeli soldiers and their homes were demolished. In 2006, Hamas won its surprise victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The following year, Fatah was driven out of Gaza by Hamas.

Blair’s take on his initial distancing from Bush is, “What happened really was this: Bill Clinton tried heroically to get an agreement, couldn’t get one and then came the intifada [September 2000], which is the most important thing. It’s important to emphasise that because I hadn’t quite appreciated the degree to which the intifada altered everything.

“Therefore I understand why, when George Bush came in, he thought there wasn’t much point. However, the fact is that you were always going to have to return to the peace process at some point, and my basic view about these situations is that you never fail to grip them. You grip them the whole time.

“The bigger point,” he continues, “is that in 2004, when Sharon withdrew from Gaza – which was extraordinary – there were only two people who welcomed it at the time: Bush and me. And because it was done unilaterally, everyone else, basically, condemned it.

“It was an interesting example of the degree to which I was often pinned between a view from America that was not always expressed in a way that I would express it, but actually had some point to it – namely, that there is a real threat and we do have to be serious about this – and the rest of the international community who, at that time, almost didn’t want to acknowledge the threat.

“It was a middle ground on which I was standing, which was fairly lonely for most of the time.”

Last July, Blair was to have visited Gaza but the trip was curtailed at the last minute because the Israeli security service had received “detailed and credible” intelligence that there was to be a planned assassination attempt on his life by a militant organisation.

After the three-week war, I ask him again whether he will reconsider visiting Gaza and he says, with some steel in his voice, “I will go into Gaza now because it’s terribly important that the community there knows that the international community cares. I would have gone in before, but when you are with staff, you have to think about the safety of the people who guard you, let alone mine, and the intelligence was completely credible, I’m afraid.”

Given that he criticised Bush for trying to remove Arafat back in 2002 – I repeat his quote, “We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians” – does that mean he changed his view when Hamas was elected?

“Erm… certainly my basic predisposition is that in a situation like this you talk to everybody,” but he repeats the Quartet position that there can be no talks, official or unofficial, with Hamas until they renounce violence and recognise Israel. “I have always thought that there is a distinction between the difficulty of negotiating with Hamas as part of the peace process about the two-state solution if they won’t accept one of the states, and talking to Hamas as the de facto power in Gaza.”

Could I say, perhaps, then, that I suspect that you have spoken to Hamas in an unofficial capacity and you could give a Francis Urquhart-type response?

“Er… er…” Blair smiles. Is it tricky? “It is tricky, yes.” OK, I’ll just smile back at you then.

When Blair talks about America as not expressing views in the way that he would necessarily express them, I take it he is referring to Dubya’s “Let’s go get those bad guys” cowboy rhetoric and the neocons’ comic-book melodrama of the “Axis of Evil”. Although Blair is too sophisticated to use this lingo, he does seem to see the world in pretty black and white terms. Unlike David Miliband, who believes there is a series of un-unified, quite independent armed struggles, Blair’s view is that it is a parabola of implacable hostility.

As he tells me: “I think we still have our eyes closed to the nature of what is going on and I see a complete link between what is going on in Palestine with what is going on in Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia – and this is one fight, basically. Terrorism is now a very powerful weapon of war and conflict.”

So I ask him another childlike question: does he believe in good and evil? “I do believe in good and bad, yes, good and evil, I suppose,” he says. “Obviously, I believe they [the terrorists] are bad and I think our basic values system is good. But from a practical, political point of view, it’s more sensible to see it as a struggle about modernity and globalisation. Fundamentally, I think theirs is a reaction against the modern world, which is why their attitudes to women and to how people live and work are so backward.”

We revisit this battle between good and evil when we are in Rwanda. It is my first time in an African country and the photographer, Nick Danziger, who has travelled widely in the region, points out its eerie silence in comparison to any of the other countries we have visited. As we drive through the deep valleys flanked by emerald mountains, there is a hushed solemnity about the people we pass – including prisoners from the genocide carrying long trunks of wood, still rebuilding the homes they had destroyed – and I am struck by the fanciful notion that the majestic landscape itself is still in mourning.

On the plane journey, I ask Blair if his Tigger-like optimism is ever dented by Eeyore-ish gloom. Does he ever descend into depression? He says that, of course, he has his dark moments. When we talk in the hotel, I ask him about this in the context of the genocide: does he sometimes despair about our endless capacity for brutality and bloodshed?

“Yuh, absolutely,” he says, and talks about his visit to the genocide museum in Rwanda. “What is fascinating about it is that you see the extraordinary capacity to do evil that humankind has, but there are also stories of people who sheltered people, who gave their own lives to other people, who did the most selfless things. And so I deal with the possibility of hope in the sense that I am convinced that people, given the right circumstances, want to live peacefully with each other. I am personally convinced of that.”

Those who cannot forgive Blair for Iraq – and there are plenty of them, not counting the extremists – say that he is responsible for atrocities of his own. That there is nothing he can say now or do to justify the actions he took and the subsequent loss of lives. I ask him whether he believes that history will vindicate him over that decision to invade, and there is a big pause before his weary answer:

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. So there’s no point in answering it in the end.” Are you ever haunted by it? “I’m not haunted by it, but of course I reflect on it, and am troubled by it, and feel a great sense of responsibility for it. Of course I do.”

Blair has experienced the extremes of being both the most loved and subsequently most hated Labour Prime Minister since the Second World War. I wonder what such a dramatic fall from grace feels like. “It’s not nice particularly to have people distrusting your motives or saying you’ve lied about things, but the most difficult thing in any set of circumstances is the sense of responsibility for people who have given their lives and fallen – the soldiers and, indeed, the civilians.

“If I didn’t feel that, there really would be something wrong with me, and there is not a single day of my life when I do not reflect upon it…” his voice goes very quiet, as though he had retreated into his own private thoughts, “…many times. And that’s as it should be.” But after another moment of silence, he bucks up: “On the other hand, you have to take the decision – and I look at the Middle East now and I think, well, if Saddam and his two sons were still running Iraq, how many other people would have died and would the region be more stable?”

I can still remember the moment the former PM first entered my radar; it was back in 1994 when John Smith was leader of the Opposition, and this young Labour MP appeared on Question Time, blue eyes blazing, fiercely articulate, firing on all cylinders. Significantly, perhaps, I can’t recall anything he said but was struck by him having a weirdly Thatcher-like aura of conviction and moral certainty.

For all Blair’s achievements, it is that unshakeable belief in the rightness of his views that has bothered me ever since. Back in London, I ask him if he ever suffers from doubt. “Do I ever suffer from doubt?” he repeats. “Who doesn’t suffer from doubt? Of course I suffer from doubt.” Do you ask yourself whether you have done the right thing? “Of course!” But never about Iraq? “Of course. You ask that question the whole time. You’d be weird if you didn’t ask that question.”

Is your conscience clear over the death of Kelly? “Absolutely. That was utterly tragic but, you know, we did put ourselves through six months of the most intensive inquiry that any government has ever submitted itself to.” Was that one of your dark moments? “Yeah. Yeah… because I felt very, very sorry for him and his family. It was a terrible time.”

Although most of our interviews focus on knotty issues, there are lighter moments; while Blair enjoys locking horns and being challenged, he is also quite playful. On the plane we talk about Cherie’s book and I tease him about her disclosure about Leo’s conception in Balmoral. I ask him to repeat his response, since it had tickled me, on the record: “Yes, ‘Shock horror! Married politician has sex with wife!’ It’s like everything to do with Cherie… people go over the top. I don’t know why but they’ve got a thing about her.”

I wonder whether he remembers what it was precisely that attracted him to Cherie when they met as young lawyers all those years ago. There is another longish pause, and then, “Yeah, she was a mixture of obviously very smart and serious and knew far more about the law than I did, but she had quite a feminine, almost giggly side to her as well. So there was a combination that I really liked of someone who was both smart and fun.

“I don’t think I could have settled down and lived with anybody I didn’t respect in terms of the mind and a capable human being and all the rest of it. No, yuhhhhh, we had a very good time…” he smiles.

It is noticeable how often Blair mentions the people he admires in terms of their braininess. He says that his wife definitely has the better brain: “Cherie’s just really clever. She got the top first at the bar exams and was streets ahead of me in brain power. But although she is more confident intellectually than me, I think I might be more confident than her in other ways. She’s got a certain insecurity as a result of her background. In one sense, I had quite a difficult childhood because of all the illness there was [his father had a stroke at 40, which robbed him of his speech for three years; shortly after, his sister was hospitalised for two years with a form of rheumatoid arthritis] but, actually, it was a very settled childhood in terms of my family.”

When we talk about Clinton, Blair wants to point out something about the former US President that he believes gets overlooked: “The thing that is most remarkable about him – and he has many remarkable qualities – is his intellect. The quality of his intellect is extraordinary.” In what way exactly? “His ability to grasp an issue, then mould and remould and explain it – it tends to get eclipsed by the fact that he is also a tremendous politician and so, because he expresses himself in very simple and direct ways because he is a great communicator, people miss the intellect. I think Obama has something of the same quality, actually. I think he’s got a high-grade intellect.”

How can he explain the conundrum of George Bush; just how dumb or smart is he? Blair becomes uncomfortable, his eyes darting away. “Um… Well, people say that they want a politician who just speaks his mind, and then he speaks his mind and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t want that – we want someone who speaks like we expect a politician to speak.’ So I think that’s a problem for him.”

When we speak on the phone after Bush has presented Blair with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his support in the War on Terror, I ask him whether it is slightly awkward for him to have that relationship reinforced at a time when the outgoing President is so unpopular around the world.

“Firstly, I am not a fairweather friend,” Blair says. “And also it is the greatest civilian honour that can be awarded. I’m not a great one for honours but it was very kind of him and I was proud to accept it on behalf of all the people who took military action.” He then reiterates the comments he made in our interview in London: “I think that people will eventually understand the nature of the decisions he took at an extremely difficult time. The fact of the matter is that decisions like those made after 9/11 are really, really tough. And I think that people will find this out as we get into the Obama presidency, because the expectations change but the problems don’t and the problems are tough.”

Blair is confident that he will enjoy a good working relationship with the new American President. They have met half a dozen times since their first encounter, when Obama was on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “He was introduced to me then,” Blair recalls, “as someone who was very clever and a great prospect for the future; it was always obvious that he had something different about him.”

Prior to the inauguration, it was Obama’s speech on race that particularly struck a chord with Blair. “I found that very, very moving. I think that was when I understood that he had real political depth and imagination because it was not an ordinary speech. It showed a complete understanding of why people might feel as they feel but that actually it is time to move on. The thing he does really brilliantly is to explain why certain sentiments are inconsistent with the future and can be put to one side.

“Prejudice, certainly, but also that he understands that very partisan politics doesn’t really work any more and doesn’t meet either the needs of the time or the mood of the time.”

Isn’t that a bit like your philosophy, I ask, thinking how human it is to find someone especially brilliant if their approach seems to mirror your own? On the evening of Obama’s inauguration, at least one American pundit compared the euphoric mood in the United States to that of Britain in 1997. “Yuh, I think there is a new generation of political leaders who find the very traditional pigeonholing rather redundant, actually. Who have undergone this strange experience – certainly for me, but I think in a sense for Obama, too – which is growing up with a Left politics that was the politics of ideology, and then as we’ve grown to political maturity and taken positions of power, we find that it’s the Right that’s got ideology. Over time, the Centre Left became quite practical and the Right suddenly got ideology which I think still dogs it today.”

Although Blair is in a new mood of openness, there are limits, as I find when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism – which is almost on a par with his response when I ask him whether he has, like Jimmy Carter, ever “committed adultery in his heart”. (“Now, Ginny, this is one place we’re really not going to go… That’s private! There are some human questions which it’s better not to answer.”)

But before we deal with matters of the spirit, I need to address the more worldly concerns of mammon. We know that Blair has never had a problem with champagne socialism and he reiterates his view that, “It would be disastrous if the Labour Party ever went back to the days when they had a problem with people who are wealthy supporting them.”

As for his own considerable earning power, he does not feel uncomfortable, he says, because, “I left office with a lot of debt, and I’ve got a big operation to support, and I do a lot of stuff pro bono and it’s not coming out of public funds.” He does not, he says, have a property portfolio: “I’ve got a house in London and a house in the country, and I’m probably not alone in that regard. It’s true that I have a place in the constituency [Sedgefield], but that is now the centre for my sports foundation.

“I suppose people disapprove of the country residence because it seems to be rather grand, if not grandiose. “They mistake the pavilion for the stately home which gets photographed but is not, in fact, the place we live in. I mean, it’s a very nice house but it’s not the stately home! Anyway, to be honest, I’m very happy with it, so I don’t feel guilty about having it. Sorry, but it’s as simple as that really.” Have you still got the Bristol flats? “They’re either sold or in the process of being sold… yuh.” How can you not know! “I do actually, but I don’t really want to talk about it because you get a whole load of ridiculous stuff out of it each time.” Have you still got mortgages? “Of course, I’ve got mortgages and I also bought at… [A big, rueful laugh.] You can almost spot where the housing market is by seeing what I do and doing the opposite. So, yes, I am being affected by the credit crunch.”

In Rwanda, when I asked whether he found his faith a solace, he said, “Yes, I do, but I find it more of a strength than anything else. But my view of faith is not a very exclusive or narrow one. I think what people find difficult nowadays is to reconcile faith sometimes with very strict interpretations of doctrine of organised religion. But I think people can understand faith a lot more easily, and a level of spiritual values.” All of this was delivered with a great deal of swallowing and mumbling into his chest.

But what was it about Catholicism that had persuaded him to convert? First, he seems to suggest that his conversion was really a pragmatic matter to formalise him tagging along to church with the rest of the family. I understand why he couldn’t have “come out”, so to speak, as a Catholic when he was Prime Minister, as he says: “If I hadn’t been Prime Minister, I would have done this several years before” – he tells me he had been attending Mass for seven years – “but it would have caused the most extraordinary rigmarole. There would have been no end to the speculation.” But that doesn’t explain his reticence now.

Back in London, in the snowy-carpeted Hempel-esque plush of the Belgravia office, we return to this and I say that he sounded rather glib about the whole business. Can he try harder to explain? After some flailing around, he says, with a struggle: “Look, the thing that motivates and drives me is my religious faith. I am a member of the Catholic Church but you would misunderstand me if it became defined in terms of specific rituals or acts. It is about values and beliefs; it’s about God and humanity.”

As we go to press, there is a prevailing mood of excitement as well as anxiety as we watch every move of the newly inaugurated American President for signs of how the world is going to reshape. A spokesman from Mahmoud Abbas’s office claims that Obama has spoken to the Palestinian leader before any other world leaders. The Israelis declared a unilateral ceasefire; joined by Hamas for a seven-day period only. Blair makes it clear to me that he feels his hands have been tied by his role with Quartet, not helped by “the US administration being at its very tail end and Israeli politics being in a state of paralysis since the middle of last year because of all the allegations [corruption charges against Olmert which precipitated his resignation].

“Although we did achieve things in the last year, it was obviously frustrating and I was on a steep learning curve. It took us ten years to deliver peace to Northern Ireland – so, of course, you can’t deliver peace in a situation as complex and as difficult as the Middle East overnight. That’s not gonna happen, but I think that the bitterness and grief of the last few weeks will fade eventually and, at last,” says Tony Blair, who, like someone else we know, chooses to be audacious about hope rather than resigned to despair, “we have now got the possibility of a quantum leap forward.”

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