Fictionalizing Tony Blair

Picture a British prime minister newly out of office. While in power he took heavy flak for involving his country in an unhappy Middle Eastern war and allying himself too closely with U.S. interests. Now he's in America, busy making money on the lecture circuit and struggling to produce his memoirs. If he's charming and photogenic, he's also a tad glib for some tastes, a brilliant showman who's long on style but short on substance. By his side: a forceful, manipulative wife who's said to be his intellectual superior.

Surely, this must be Tony Blair. Well, not quite. This is Adam Lang, central character in "The Ghost," the latest fictional thriller from best-selling British author Robert Harris. But the likeness to Tony Blair is no accident. Harris has scores to settle. We'll get to those in a moment. For now let's just say that this is one book that won't figure on the Blairs' Christmas list. Reviewers have talked of "a fictionalized attempt to stab Tony and Cherie Blair firmly in the front" and the skewering of Blair with "magnificent rudeness."

By common consent it's a cracking read: a paced tale of wrongdoing in high places. The narrator, a hack writer, is employed to help with Lang's memoirs after the mysterious death of an earlier collaborator. Soon his researches reveal more than he wants to know about his subject's past, leading him into a tangle with sinister right-wing forces (and, incidentally, with the ex-prime minister's wife).

But it's not the masterly plotting that has excited the critics. It's the expert hatchet work on its principal character. Harris is much more than a millionaire author with a flair for upmarket thrillers ("Fatherland," "Pompeii"). He's a one-time political journalist with close friends among the Labour Party elite, well known to Blair himself and a chronicler of his rise to power. Worse, the insider was once an admirer, too. In the early years of Blair's ascent, Harris heaped praise on the "the consummate politician" who was successfully reconstructing the Labour Party.

Disenchantment set in after Blair reached Downing Street, and not only because of the Iraq War. A crunch moment came in 2001, when Blair sacked his former intimate Peter Mandelson (also a close friend of Harris's), after some rough handling from the media. For Harris that was a betrayal too far, a sacrifice of principle to political interests. According to press accounts, he has not seen Blair for five years.

OK, the fictional Lang isn't quite the historical Blair. Blair was a student rock musician; Lang was an actor in college. Before entering politics Blair was a lawyer; Lang worked in finance. Nor, for that matter, is Blair—unlike his fictional double—facing an indictment from the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. And he's definitely not having an affair with a glamorous assistant.

But who's fooled? There are still plenty of incidental details to reinforce the likeness. This is a man who's happy to borrow the homes of rock stars for his holidays, who has rowed bitterly with a former foreign secretary over those links with America, and who suffers from his wife's testy relationship with the press. Any reader of the British press over the last 10 years is familiar with the charge sheet and will pick up the jokey references. Blair famously referred to Princess Diana as the "People's Princess." Lang is writing the "People's Memoirs."

Inevitably, those trivial likenesses reinforce the deeper criticisms of Blair-Lang, the flawed politician. Like his creator, the narrator was once a supporter but over time has modified his judgment. His final verdict on Blair-Lang: "In the flesh or on the screen, playing the part of a statesman, he seemed to have a strong personality. But somehow when one sat down to think about him, he vanished."

Ouch. In press interviews Harris won't deny the similarities with Blair but insists nevertheless that Lang and his wife are fictional creations. Characteristics have merely been borrowed and heightened. Anyhow, he says, Blair is most unlikely to read the book. Wise decision. If Blair is as media-conscious as "The Ghost" suggests, best to leave it on the shelves.