Politicians

Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
- Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

By our third meeting, the Prime Minister’s skill at the public kiss had improved immeasurably. There was now definite contact between lips and cheek and no head clunking, although he still needs to work on his puckering technique. When I commented on his progress, in the library of 10 Downing Street, he laughed… which is something he does a lot, the more we meet, in-between some rather solemn moments. My teasing had come on the back of seeing his turn on Piers Morgan’s television show, and the clips of him bungling the continental double-kiss with the likes of Carla Bruni (but, really, who can blame him for being a little fazed by that?).

In the run-up to the election, the beauty contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown is hotting up. After Brown’s hour with Morgan came his opponent’s twirl with Trevor McDonald, featuring the Tory’s “secret weapon” – after Sarah Brown’s endorsement of her husband, at last year’s Labour Party conference, proved such a hit – David’s wife, Samantha. But McDonald’s gentle lack of probing did his subject no favours, and Cameron’s performance – not helped by some rather ludicrous footage of him jogging to a soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – merely reinforced his critics’ complaints that he is a lightweight.

Brown has the opposite problem; where Cameron is accused of “hidden shallows”, the PM is thought to be almost too deep. There were cavils about him looking upset (apparently there is also such a thing as being “too human”) when discussing the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, with Morgan but, on the whole, the attempt to portray him as less remote and more normal worked. So thus far, in the battle of the populist TV shows, it’s probably 15-love to Brown.

Our first day together started early with a photo opportunity at Euston station, the PM alongside Lord Adonis, to publicise the new high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North. Then on to the train, in first class, where there is the first of several amusing moments. Brown comes over to greet us and blocks the aisle to the disgruntlement of a couple, behind him, who tut-tut and say, “Excuse me”, crossly, and when the PM turns round, the expression on their faces is priceless. Sarah Brown is accompanying her husband and, although we have met socially on a number of occasions, her manner is initially a little strained. This must be “protective wife syndrome”, since there was a similar quality of watchful wariness on Samantha’s face when we met at the Camerons’ home last year.

The main event of the day is at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, a service of rededication of the Basra Memorial Wall. The original wall was built, with local bricks, outside the airport in Basra. It was constructed in the dark, in their own time, after they had finished their day’s work, by Royal Engineers, hanging it with brass plaques as each man or woman was killed.

The Browns are sitting in the middle of the front row, with the Duke of Gloucester and Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, alongside. At one end, is Cameron, slightly slouched, legs crossed over each other oddly casually, in contrast to Nick Clegg, at the other end, who looks about 12, and Brown, who looks his age (59), who are both sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead.

After the lighting of the memorial candle by Tracey Hazel, whose son – Corporal Ben Leaning of the Queen’s Royal Lancers – was killed in action at the age of 24, the readings, the playing of the Last Post and the minute of silence, the families line up to place their wreaths.

As they approach the wall, it is hard to witness their faces, convulsed in grief. They are all ages: some will have lost their husbands or wives; some their sons or daughters. Brown and Cameron are seven seats apart but, despite the bigger gulf of their political battle, there must be some communality, at this moment at least, in their thoughts of the loss of their first-born children. In the silence and the chilly air, it is impossible not to empathise with the families’ bereavement. Cameron is stooped forward, deep in thought, with a furrowed brow. Brown’s hound face looks sunken, ashen and grave. Later, he tells me, several times, “War is tragic” in an echo of what his old compadre, Tony Blair, said: “War is horrible.” But all their knockers want to know is, “Could it have been avoided?”

Next on the agenda is a “healthy living centre”. This is a Brown initiative; multipurpose centres to serve the local community, where you can drop your child at the nursery, go to the dentist, and so on, all in one place. In the nursery, Brown drops down on his knees – no hint of creakiness – and chats away to mothers and nursery aides, and their charges.

I would say, having observed both Blair and Cameron in similar circumstances, that Brown, contrary to expectation, has more of a common touch than either of them. Perhaps this is to do with his upbringing – his late father, the Rev John Ebenezer Brown, was a minster of the Church of Scotland, and the family manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was something of an open house to the poor and in need. Gordon and his brothers, John and Andrew, were expected to be kind and hospitable to whomsoever arrived at the door.

On the train back, Brown and I are left to talk, in rather trying circumstances, knees to knees, juddering china, hovering rail staff with loudspeaker voices. His voice is low and soothing but his manner is more hesitant, particularly at first, than in subsequent meetings.

It’s intriguing to hear the private reflections and anxieties of our public figures behind their impassive façades. He was worried at the service, for instance, about how much eye contact he should make: “It was very emotional. I found it difficult because I wanted to look at everybody but not in a prying way. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t trying to avoid their… so I looked at them and sort of nodded.” Afterwards, he met the families. Did they express their anger to you? “That has happened but not today… Look, war is always tragic, that’s what I wanted to say at the Iraq inquiry.”

So why didn’t you say it? “I did say it but that’s not what was reported. Tragedies happen during a period of war or conflict and you’ve got to keep asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can you justify this? What is happening to these young people?’?”

Do you sometimes feel like weeping, yourself, in a public event like this one? “Of course, of course.” I ask him, then, about his emotionalism when talking about the death of his daughter on the Piers Morgan show. Was he surprised when his feelings overtook him?

“Well, we… I hadn’t really talked about it much in public and I just… um… I mean, that’s just the way it happened. I wanted to explain what had happened because these were ten…the ten most important days of my life and I can remember almost every minute of them. And, yes, you do cherish them.”

Who can forget those pictures and footage of Brown, happier than anyone had ever seen him, as he held his new baby girl in his arms? He came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and looked like a man who could hardly believe his good fortune. And then those grief-stricken, shell-shocked photos, ten days later.

Does that personal experience connect him to the people whose own children have died, and does it also reconnect him to his own feelings of loss? “Yes, it does, because a loss is not something you get over. You just adjust to it. It’s very, very difficult, particularly when people have built their whole lives around either a partnership with someone or their expectations that they will see their teenage son prosper and then, suddenly, they’re dead, and it’s very, very sad. It is a terrible thing to lose your child.”

Moving on, I ask Brown whether he has enjoyed being Prime Minister, which startles him. “Enjoyment! It’s not the first word that you’d use,” a big laugh. “I do enjoy being in politics and, I mean, if I thought that I wasn’t being able to do anything that was of any use, I’d get out immediately. I’m not really wanting to be there if I can’t do anything. So as long as I feel there are more things to do… Yes, it is enjoyable.”

Can you give an example of something you set out to do and have achieved; something which makes you feel proud? “I think we have probably created a fairer society and rebuilt our public services. These Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, like the one we were at today… There’s now 3,500 around the country and there were none in 1997.”

He talks about the new challenges each day brings, and meetings with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, and Martha Lane Fox: “We’re trying to work out how we can move to the next stage of the internet in Britain and how Britain can lead in that.”

How good are you at the new technology? “I’m not that great.” Do you tweet? “Well, I give people messages but we’ve got 1.5 million people on it!” How are you at e-mail? “I do e-mail and you can tell it’s me, I never correct the spelling. I can’t be bothered doing spellcheck.

“My father had a typewriter and when I was very young, we [he and his brothers] all learnt to type with two fingers. That’s never changed,” he demonstrates, looking like an old-time reporter in The Front Page.

Brown went to Edinburgh University to read history at the age of 16, having been fast-tracked in an experimental educational programme, selected at Kirkcaldy West primary school, and taught in a separate class – with the other hot-housed children – at Kirkcaldy High School.

As a teenager, he wrote about how much he hated the experiment and he still clearly believes it was a bad idea: “My school life and everybody else’s was determined by this narrow, narrow measure of IQ. The kids I was in a class with, with very high IQs, were being trained to do better at university, assuming they would go to university. And, actually, most of them didn’t go because the pressures were very high on them, and a lot of them just gave up on the way.

“The idea that you can narrow intelligence down to one measurement of IQ… when what we’ve got to have is both an education system and a society that recognises that people’s talents flourish in different ways. You cannot standardise a measure of talent.”

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, was a contemporary of the PM’s at Edinburgh and recalls Brown’s successful campaign to become rector in 1972, at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of such towering political figures as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

“He wasn’t the first [student rector] – he was the second – but he was the one who made the most of it,” Sudjic remembers. “Here was someone who was quite cerebral about politics but who also managed a very populist campaign [a posse of miniskirted cuties, who called themselves the Brown Sugars, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Brown’s face and the slogan, “Gordon for me”]. It was a time when students were more interested in sit-ins and were quite snooty about that kind of thing, but he had a gift for touching different sorts of people.”

Even then, Sudjic says, “Brown had a glow, which is nothing to do with hindsight – a charisma that this was someone who was going to do something.” They worked together on the student newspaper, where Sudjic was editor and Brown was the unofficial news editor who could be relied on to come up with cracking headlines, and quickly: “He was always the centre of a group of people who wanted to be around him, and popular – of course – with women. [His girlfriend, for five years, was Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter of the exiled King of Romania.] We’d all go to a pub – the Meadows Bar – which was a notorious dive.”

When Brown left university, staying on as rector until 1975, fighting and triumphing in various thorny political battles, his plan was to be an academic. He lectured in politics in Glasgow and Edinburgh, “and I was going down that sort of road, but after I had my series of eye operations, I decided to do something a bit more useful”.

As is well known, Brown lost his sight in one eye in an accident when he was playing rugby in his final year at school. Up to that point, he was a gifted and keen sportsman. I’d read somewhere that he’d even thought of turning professional, but when I ask him, he says “No! But I was very fit and I was very fast. I was a runner, you know, so whether you’re playing football or rugby or athletics, if you’re fast, you’ve got something to offer.”

But then there were complications in his other eye and he had to spend long weeks, with operation after operation, lying on his bed in the dark with nothing to do but think: “I decided I had to do something a bit more useful, so that’s when I got more involved in politics.” But what could be more useful than teaching?

“That’s true, but I thought I was doing it just for myself.” In-between being a university lecturer and an MP, Brown had a stint as a broadcast journalist on Scottish Television. How did you find that? “I thought it was fascinating because it taught me how – well, it should have taught me how – to present a case, and it should have taught me how to say things more succinctly!”

For the rest of the journey we talked about books and poetry. Brown knew that this interested me, for several reasons, and I had the impression that he had prepared himself. We had met years ago when he threw a drinks party for Women in Journalism, in a gracious reception room on the top floor of 11 Downing Street. He may have had, even then, a slight reputation for dourness – which was nothing compared to what it became – but he was incredibly charming and seemed totally at ease surrounded by legions of spike-heeled feministas who all wanted to get close to him. His chief memory of the occasion, rather disappointingly, was the enthusiastic smoking on the balconies.

Then, more recently, as Brown’s reputation hardened – and he was portrayed, in some places, as a moody, paranoid, bitter, neurotic, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, workaholic weirdo – it struck me how distinctly at odds this was with the impression of him conveyed by other people I interviewed. Talking to them revealed glimpses of a Brown that we rarely see, and I wanted to dig deeper into this hinterland.

Terence Conran, for instance, spoke about his passion for modernist architecture and how – before the big modernism exhibition at the V&A in 2006 – Brown had asked if Conran would give him a tour of the show one evening. What impressed him was the knowledge of the Chancellor, as he was then, but also his curiosity and desire to learn more.

Antonia Fraser was struck by Brown’s cleverness but also his passionate interest and knowledge of poetry. Brown remembers being invited to a reception for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish love poetry when he was a student: “This was very funny because Hugh MacDiarmid was there [the nom de plume of the communist poet Christopher Murray Grieve, who created a Scottish version of modernism] and he was just swearing at everything. This man who had this great talent with words was reduced to the adjective, the verb and the noun of swear words. It was incredible.” But why was he swearing? “Well, I was the rector of the university, and I was a student, and the establishment was not very pleased with me [Brown had taken the university to court over its investments in South Africa, and won] and so Hugh was siding with me.”

He still reads poetry, which surprises and delights me, and he really knows his stuff. Every time I make a reference, he joins me, and so we make a bit of spectacle of ourselves, yelling, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” over the rattle of the train. (The only other politician, in my experience, who has a similar love and appreciation of language is Boris Johnson.)

I had asked Brown to cite his favourite love poem and he’s a bit stumped. About a week after our last meeting, I have the faintly surreal experience of the Prime Minister calling me at home, on a Sunday, and quoting the lines of various poems that do it for him. Clearly, he was speaking from memory, because he is unable to tell me the titles, apart from Robbie Burns’s A Red Red Rose. He also likes this one by Erich Fried and recites it:

“It is nonsense/ says reason/ It is what it is/says love

It is calamity/ says calculation/ It is nothing but pain/ says fear

It is hopeless/ says insight/ It is what it is/ says love

It is ludicrous/ says pride/ It is foolish/ says caution/ It is impossible/ says experience/ It is what it is/ says love.”

Towards the end of our train journey, Sarah came and joined us. Her husband had been talking about his book of the moment, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

What I want to know is whether the Browns swap books at bedtime. Sarah says in her dry way: “I read a lot of chick lit… and Gordon, not so much.” Really, how can you fail to like her? “Well, Sarah reads a lot more than I do,” says Gordon. “I’m less interested in reading political biographies but I do find biographies interesting; the way they try to get at the heart of people.”

We’ve arrived at Euston. Brown ushers me into his car, en route for Downing Street, where he and Sarah are hosting a reception for the heroes of different communities, and talks in an unbridled way about himself.

There is a bit of a whiff of that “They’re out to get me” paranoia when he refers to certain newspapers, but then you could say it’s justifiable paranoia because they are. More interestingly, he says that for some years he had felt restricted by a kind of image-problem straitjacket but now he’s shrugged it off and can be himself. He talks about it as though it were a liberation.

Other people have witnessed this new lightness in the PM’s step, although they say the straitjacket was of Brown’s own making. One political commentator first noticed what a good mood Brown was in on the plane to Trinidad, last November, for the Commonwealth summit. “I kept saying, ‘Why is Gordon so relaxed? Is it because he can see the finishing line?’ He’s seen off the coups, and he’s got the polls in a good position and he’s been thrown a lifeline that wasn’t there – because the public has taken a good look at Cameron and they’re not quite sure about him… So Brown’s in with a chance.”

The accusations sparked by Andrew Rawnsley’s book that Brown has “anger issues” have tended to make the PM more popular. “The country was not shocked by suggestions that the PM loses his temper, and his staff don’t regard him as a bully,” the commentator continues. “He’s not a cruel guy – he doesn’t get any pleasure by being hard on people – but he is extremely demanding. I’ve had texts from people in No 10 saying, ‘God, he’s in a bad mood today,’ and there’s no doubt that he’s really, really moody. But now that it’s been seen that he can shed a tear as well as sock people,” he jokes, “Brown’s far more interesting to the public.”

I spoke to someone close to Blair who had witnessed the two of them during some of the more tense periods. “I’ve never seen anything like bullying,” he says. “I’ve heard horrible tempers but the most difficult thing with Gordon was his withdrawal or sulkiness which was much more tedious. His main problems were shooting the messenger and sulking when he didn’t get his own way, but my impression is that all that is better now and his team seems to be working better.”

It’s possible, of course, with the election only weeks away, that no one from Labour’s inner circle, past or present, is going to put the boot into Brown since there’s no shortage of people who will be doing that for them.

Our next meeting takes place, on Sunday afternoon, in the kitchen of No 10. It’s rather pokey and old-fashioned and to get there, you go up in a lift the size of one of those saw-the-lady-in-half magician’s boxes. The Browns’ sons are nowhere to be seen but I pass their brightly coloured wellingtons lined up, regimentally, in another tiny nook at the entrance of the flat. Sarah organises coffee in a cafetiere and, again, Brown and I are left alone, to talk around the kitchen table.

This lack of control-freakery is highly unusual with senior politicians. Brown’s press person leaves a tape recorder on the table but never sits in on the interviews. When I interviewed Tony Blair a number of times last year, again with no aide present, he said that when he was Prime Minister that would never have happened. I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with David Cameron in our time together, again last year, without his press officer glued to our side. Cameron’s people were also much more anxious about what I was going to write, while Brown’s lot are almost peculiarly chilled. It’s hard to know whether this is an extremely clever ploy – see how relaxed and confident the PM is! Gordon Brown has nothing to fear! – or a bit naive and unprofessional.

I ask Brown, after all the recent focus on his personality, how he would describe his temperament. “Determined, strong-willed, impatient, wanting to do things.” Are you moody? “Yes, but, look, every day you get up with a determination to do certain things, and you can get very frustrated if you haven’t done them by the end of the day. But every morning, I’m very positive about what you can do.”

There’s been no hint of brusqueness in our time together but I wouldn’t see that, would I, since we are both sort of wooing one another for our own reasons, aren’t we? He laughs: “I don’t think I’m naturally surly but I am very strong-willed.”

When I repeat what the political pundit had said about the public being more interested in him, now, because of the tears and him packing a punch, Brown says, “But I don’t pack a punch!” He talks about his father, to whom he often refers, with a rather touching admiration: “He was a man who I never heard raise his voice once. You always knew when he was disappointed by the expression on his face but he would not get angry. And every time I get impatient or angry around others, I remember my father was not prepared to lose his temper.”

Does Sarah ever tell you to calm down? “Not those words, no.” What does she say? “Move on to the next issue.’” Do you brood? “I think about a lot of things. But ‘brood’ is not the word. ‘Brood’ is your poets we were discussing the other day.”

I ask him whether this new lightness of being – he says that it’s a consequence of him not caring any more about what people write about him – means that he is philosophical about his future.

“I’m not philosophical in the sense that people might understand it – that I’m just letting events take their course. I’m fighting as we’ve never fought before to win,” he says.

Some commentators are saying that the danger is that you underestimate Cameron. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Brown says steelily. “And I certainly don’t underestimate the Conservatives. I mean, they’re putting huge amounts of money and huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of personal… You know, sort of ‘Brown is the problem’, ‘Another five years of Brown’. I don’t underestimate them at all.”

Does he fear rejection, I wonder. Could this be the reason that he put off the election, the first time round, when he seemed to be in a much stronger position to win, even though the initial honeymoon period was over. “That wasn’t about a fear of rejection, it was about the right time for doing the right things,” he says. “And I’m not going into this election fearing rejection. I mean, if people decide not to vote for us, I’ll accept that. I have to accept it so I will accept it. I don’t think I’m motivated by the fear of rejection.”

So why didn’t you call an election at that time? “Because I’d just started the job… We’d gone through the summer with floods and terrorism, and foot-and-mouth, and I thought about it and then decided not to do it because I thought we would give people more time to see what we’re capable of doing.”

Hmmm, how very generous-spirited of you, I say. Do you despair of the fickleness of the public; the way when Blair had gone, it was all, “Thank God, no more of that dreadful showbiz and glamour – Gordon Brown is so solid and no frills,” and, pretty soon, it was you who could do nothing right?

Another big laugh. “Well, look around the world at every political leader and for most of the time that they’re in office, it’s a referendum on them. So – make a mistake [which his people admit he did on pensions, for instance], make a bad judgment, do something sort of idiosyncratic or do something a bit strange or odd or stupid, and – you know – people will mark you down.

“So most of the time, it’s a referendum and it’s only when it comes to an election – and, actually, it’s only in the few weeks before an election – that it becomes a choice. So if you’re asking people, most of the time, ‘What’s your view of the Government?’ they’ll say, ‘The Government’s done something wrong.’ If you ask them nearer an election, then they know they’ve got to choose between these two parties.

“And if I seem happy it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.”

I ask him what he’s learnt about people from his time in politics. Any surprises? “I think that in the job that I’m in there are lots of things that shock you!” Any examples? “I’d better not! I’m still shocked by some of these parliamentary expenses problems that I never knew about. There was a system that was wrong, but it does shock me how bad some of the experiences we had to deal with were.”

Are you a bit of an innocent then? “Maybe I am.” A huge laugh. “No, I think most people would be shocked by this. And when you see people abusing any system, you get angry and it made me very angry indeed.” He goes on: “I didn’t have any particular problem with my expenses but everybody suffered and it’s bound to affect the government of the day. In the last two years, we’ve had two of the biggest problems that British politics has had to face since the war. One is the trust in politics that has been damaged in a way that it’s never been hurt before by a sort of cumulative weight of public opinion against MPs – because of the expenses – which is justifiable.

“And the second is the global financial crisis – and when you ask me about why we didn’t choose to go for the election…” Do you regret that you didn’t? “No.” Why? “Because I think it was better for me to see through the global recession. And let’s see what happens in the next few months. I mean, there’s still a long way to go.”

He talks about “the tragedy of British politics”, when there are big moral questions that should be debated – such as the right to assisted suicide, genetic research, discrimination laws – that are “about the future of our culture, in some cases, as well as the future of our country”, and yet, “All you see is a sort of divisive, confrontational opposition versus government bun fight that is more reminiscent of a public-school debating society than it is of a serious chamber looking at serious issues.”

He continues: “We’ve got to do better than this confrontational point-scoring and legalistic cleverness because, that’s what it is, clever not wise. And the reason that people don’t feel that their politicians are in touch with them as they should be is that they don’t feel that politicians are debating the issues that really matter to them – like social care – how do you care for the elderly? If you could see Parliament really debating that, then people might have more trust in the political system. That’s where I’d like it to be.”

And, yet, there are obviously larger moments of shared humanity where all differences are put aside: “When people are talking in the House of Commons about the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mood is very different. Look, politicians can behave well, even if they often behave badly.”

I ask him what has been the happiest moment in his political life, and he says: “I think it was probably presenting the first Budget as Chancellor – probably because you felt you were actually doing something, after so many years in opposition of not being able to change things.

“The Budget was 3.30 one afternoon, and for some stupid reason the Conservatives decided to make points of order. And we had 18 minutes of points of order – hahahahah – and I remember turning to Tony and saying, ‘Look, we’ve waited 18 years, I suppose we can wait another 20 minutes.’?”

The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is one that has riveted the public and media alike. It has been the subject of many column inches, books and a TV drama, The Deal. Given the Conservatives’ recent, rather counter-intuitive claim that they are Blair’s heirs, it seemed a good idea to contact the man himself. Blair is harder to pin down, these days, than the PM, but he spoke to me on the telephone, in snatches, from Moscow, London and Brussels, before flying off to China.

They were both new MPs when they met – Blair was 30, Brown, 32 – and they got on instantly. “He was pointed out to me as someone who was a highly intelligent, able guy – the rising star of the Labour Party – and we got talking and I found him both intellectually stimulating and a fascinating personality and then, by a curious quirk, we ended up sharing this windowless, airless room underneath a House of Commons corridor.

“That was the start of a very close friendship because we were in a very, very small room – slightly bigger than the inside of a car, but not much – and we were there all the time. First, there was a very strong intellectual curiosity, and an understanding that the Labour Party had to change and that we were in serious trouble.

“Second, we got on personally very well together, we really, really enjoyed each other’s company, and he certainly taught me a lot about politics.”

Blair offers as an example the first press release he did, “which was very much like a sort of lawyer’s opinion, and he said, ‘What’s the headline?’ And I gave him this intellectual analysis, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the headline?’ So he was extremely good at doing that.”

Brown also helped Blair with his first speeches: “Getting a point to them and a rhythm to them that was for a public speech rather than an argument. But the most important thing was that for ten years we were extremely busy iterating and reiterating where the Labour Party had to be… what was the modern form of social democracy that would be capable of remaining true to its values but win public support.

“So it was an intellectual bond but a strong personal friendship, too.”

I ask him about the next stage, when the decision was made for Blair to become leader. Wasn’t that awkward, since Brown had somewhat mentored him? “Well, of course, these things are always difficult,” he says, and then – which felt almost too melodramatically apt – the line went dead in snowbound Moscow.

We resume, a day or so later: “Of course, it was bound to be difficult because only one of us could go forward, and we’d been working extraordinarily closely together and very productively.

“But at the time, the great challenge was how to win the aspirantly upwardly mobile in the South.” And yours was the face that fitted? “You could say that… Obviously, it was very hard for him but, yes, I think he eventually reconciled himself to it.”

Blair says that the first term was about re-establishing Labour’s credibility to govern, “and he was a tower of strength, particularly in respect of the economy, because the worry had always been that Labour either didn’t understand it or couldn’t run it or manage it. And, actually, in those ten years we were a very successful partnership. But, yes, the tension obviously remained.”

I’ve been told, as was widely speculated, that after 2005, there was a real deterioration in your relationship, is that right? “I’m not sure it was quite like that but obviously Gordon still retained a very strong ambition to be leader – and he was perfectly entitled to, which is why I always thought he’d be my successor.

“When major events happened, like September 11th and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, he was there and he was supportive. But there’s no point in being silly about it – of course the tension remained between someone who had the job and someone who wanted the job. That’s always the way it is, but it was still a very enduring partnership.”

Do you feel protective of Gordon when he is under siege? “Of course, because I know what it’s like to be under attack in that way. One of the reasons why I would never go out and criticise the person who is Prime Minister is that I know how damn tough the job is, and I also know enough about the way the modern media works to know that things can get extraordinarily exaggerated and your motives are completely traduced.

“But there’ll always be a basis of friendship for us and, indeed, respect – because on the great issues of the day, he is someone who thinks profoundly and, indeed, in an original way – which is a rare quality.”

I wait for the PM in the library of 10 Downing Street, with its rather gloomy landscapes in ornate frames, and books – lined up under august busts – which have an uncherished and unconsidered quality, dating back to previous incumbents. Only in one corner, almost embarrassedly tucked-away, is there any sense of the here and now – a photograph of a beaming Brown, with his two boys, John, 6, and Fraser, 3, wrapped up in his arms.

Sculpted into the cornices, around the room, are four tiny bees that Cherie had commissioned to represent the actual Blair heirs. The original vandal was Margaret Thatcher who had decided, in a fit of whimsical grandeur, to have four thatches attached to the stucco of the ceiling in one of No 10’s reception rooms.

When Brown arrives, I ask him what form his interior legacy will take. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he says. “What’s Tony done?”

I had asked him whether his weeks of darkness and enforced idleness as a youth had taught him more about patience or impatience: “Impatience, I think – because I was doing all these things I enjoyed, like playing rugby and football, and then that just stopped.

“So, instead of allowing it to be a setback, you think you’ll try to make something of it – and I became more impatient to do things more quickly.”

And, yet, you had to be patient for so long, waiting to become prime minister? But then you weren’t so very patient towards the end, were you?

“Well, ask Tony. We had our ups and downs but there is no political relationship, as I have said, that has survived so long as Chancellor and Prime Minister as the one I had with Tony. How many Chancellors did Margaret Thatcher have? Three or four? And I was the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years. So we worked things through when there were difficulties, and I’ve got enormous, enormous respect for him.”

He was also close to his special adviser Damian McBride, who had to resign after the e-mail scandal when he and Labour blogger, Derek Draper, fabricated unpleasant personal stories about Tory politicians and their wives. Do you still talk to him? “No, I haven’t talked to him.” Don’t you miss him and feel sad about it? “It’s a very sad example of someone making a mistake and paying very heavily for it. You can’t condone what happened but, equally, the penalty for him was very high.”

Does that mean that you’re not a good judge of character? “I don’t think so, no. One of the things about people is that you think you know them and then you get a surprise. But you think you know yourself and then sometimes you’ve got to think, ‘Oh, I’ve reacted in this way which surprises me.’?”

Well, look at Peter Mandelson, and how he bounces back. He’s gone from being the Prince of Darkness to – what? – the Labour Party’s Winne-the-Pooh? “I think people admire the way he’s fought back.”

Earlier, we had been talking about Brown’s extracurricular interests – he still plays the piano (as a boy he had lessons from his aunt, who was a music teacher) and he likes Bach, but he also can bang out some Beatles songs. What’s your favourite Beatles song? “Hey Jude.” He tells me that his older son, John, was given a teddy bear that plays Imagine when you wind it up – but it’s only later, when I compare Mandelson to a Mandy Bear, that he says: “That’s the guy who gave John the teddy bear that plays Imagine.”

What does he make of George Osborne’s claim that the Tories are the real Blair’s heirs, presumably trying to imply that Brown is a sort of Arthur Scargill throwback?

“It’s a Tory tactic to try to present themselves as centre ground and me as too far on the left. And it’s wrong because, basically, I am centre ground and they are too far on the right.”

Given that GB was as much the architect of New Labour as TB, the Tories might as well say that they are wearing Brown’s crown.

Moving on to Iraq, did he ever feel like resigning over it? “No… It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction or the issue about regime change that was important to me. To me, the important thing was, if you are creating a global community – which is what we are trying to do after the Cold War – you cannot have countries that persistently defy the international community by refusing to abide by their obligations.”

But was it our responsibility to go in? “There is a responsibility to protect – which we will have to debate – you know, we didn’t go into Rwanda when we should have done. You wouldn’t justify now the Western world’s inability to deal with the problems of Rwanda, would you? So you would support intervention in cases where it was morally justified.”

So are you saying we should be doing more Iraqs, not less? “Well, I think you’ve got to ask – what is a just war and what is a just peace.”

But, Gordon, do you understand that it’s not just the expenses scandal that has made the public turn against politicians – it’s also that thousands and thousands of people marched against the Iraq War but their opposition counted for nothing. Do you understand that anger?

“I understand the anger over Iraq, I do – because people feel that they were given information that turned out not to be correct. I understand the feeling that people have but you want me to, sort of, denounce something that I was involved with.

“Do I understand why people feel worried when there are casualties and people are killed? Yes, I do – but I can’t be in politics and be a pacifist.”

How much does the public have a right to know about their political leaders? “That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” If you had been suffering from depression, for instance, should we know about that? “I’ve never really thought about it.” But weren’t you asked about that by Andrew Marr? “That was about prescription drugs, wasn’t it?” But if I asked if you were on Prozac, let’s say, should I expect an honest answer? “I think people have got to give answers to questions, yeah.”

But do you think that’s a legitimate question to ask? “Look, I think we are in a world where every part of my private life has been investigated by someone. Every part of what I do… my house, my marriage, my children. I didn’t choose to expose the fact that my son [Fraser] had cystic fibrosis. I didn’t want people to know that. I’m not ashamed of it but I didn’t want people to know because I want to protect my sons.

“But it leaked out. Someone sold the story. But I am realistic that people will ask all sorts of questions and they do – and in the end people will judge you by what you do.”

He had said that his upbringing was one where you didn’t talk about personal things outside the confines of your family: “I was quite a shy boy when I was young and, yes, I’m probably still shy… but not unwilling to take on the things I do.”

Do his feelings get hurt by the personal comments? “I think it does affect you when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a…’ – hahahaha – ‘weird smile,’ and ‘This guy’s got something wrong about the way he speaks.’ I mean, people are pretty cruel sometimes. But, no, I don’t get hurt any more.”

Watching the Browns, over several days, one did, indeed, get the impression as the PM puts it, “We do well together – we’ve been very lucky.” He looks a bit emotional. “You’ve got to understand each other’s needs and, at the moment, she’s having to do more for me, so it’s more of a pressure on her.”

How much do you think Sarah’s changed you? “A lot, I think. She’s helped me to be more outgoing and more sensitive to things that probably I was not as sensitive to as I should have been.”

What have you discovered about her in this role? “Poise. I knew she was compassionate and very dedicated to what she was doing – but it’s a difficult job for her because there’s no official title or office that sort of backs her up. But she’s tried to do all the things that are necessary with poise and, I suppose,” – a shy laugh – “elegance.”

Can you imagine a life without children? “Not now – it’s absolutely the best thing that has happened to me, and it was never clear after Jennifer died whether Sarah could have more children, so we were very lucky.

“Working here and living here, you’re meeting your children throughout the day – so, you know, they’re running in to see you.” Are you demonstrative with them? “Oh, yes, very.” Were your parents with you? “Not so much, no. But children like that – we play a lot together and I try to read them stories… You know, it’s the softness of their skin which is just wonderful.

“I’ve been very lucky to have children at this age – Sarah is younger than me, our children are very young, and I feel younger as a result. It’s very energising to be around children.”

How does Brown think he and Sarah will get on when they have more time on their hands? “Better,” he says. “I think so because Sarah’s got things she wants to do, and I’ve got things I want to do…”

Can you imagine a life without politics? “Oh yes, I could always imagine a life without politics.” What would you enjoy? “Time to read, time to write… I have written one or two books and I love the intellectual discovery that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the moral sense that people have and how that arises, and what makes people do the things they do.”

When we had been talking about poetry on the train, Brown spoke about his favourite poem – Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, and its theme of potential never realised, the flowers never to blossom and so on, because of impoverished lives. I’d asked him, then, if he felt that he’d fulfilled his potential. “Not yet. Does anybody in the end? I don’t know.” He also said that everyone who is reported as being one-dimensional has more than one dimension: “Everybody has a hinterland of some sort.”

I spoke to Rory Bremner, whose job as a political satirist and impressionist requires him to examine our political leaders with forensic precision, and his view was that Brown was the most three-dimensional of them all. He also said that, “Brown is a serious man and a significant politician but the skills set of a modern politician is about fluency and ease and looking relaxed in your own skin, and Brown doesn’t fit into that.”

What Bremner said chimed with the general impression I had of Brown, while working on this piece that, despite, his mistakes, he is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?

Towards the end of our sessions, I put it to him that politics often seems not to be about the art of the possible but the art of the compromise. “It ought to be the art of making the desirable possible, in my view,” was Brown’s supple riposte. “Is that not what politics should be? Making the desirable possible?”

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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