Why Tony Blair's Memoir Can't Rescue His Image

To feel the love, Tony Blair had to travel to Kosovo in July 2010. Armand Nimani / AFP-Getty Images

Pity poor Tony Blair. This week sees the publication of his much heralded memoirs. By rights, this should be his big moment. Three years after leaving Downing Street, it's the chance to restore his standing and answer the critics who haven't forgiven his backing for the Iraq War. This is the opportunity to dwell on his achievements over a decade in office and furnish the ultimate insider's view of how a master communicator managed to recreate his party as "New Labour" and win three successive elections. In a grand gesture, Blair's promised to hand over his $7 million advance for A Journey, as well as royalties, to a charity for wounded servicemen. The historical assessment can begin.

Trouble is, it's all a tad too late. His sidekicks have beaten him to the bookstores. This summer's first must-read was the bestselling memoir of Peter Mandelson, a key adviser and sometime friend of both Blair and his successor Gordon Brown. And the unflattering picture that emerges from The Third Man and other accounts will be hard to dispel. Forget the idea of Tony Blair as the all-conquering charmer with the disarming trademark grin. This was a beleaguered prime minister, engaged in constant feuding with an internal opposition that he was too weak to confront.

The plain truth is that Blair's Downing Street was never Camelot. It's long been known that the relationship between Brown and Blair soon turned rocky. As chancellor, Brown yearned for the top job that he'd conceded to his friend Blair in a private pact. Even before Blair won his first election in 1997, the tensions were obvious to those in the inner circle. Consider the comment from Blair's former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, who this summer published Prelude to Power, the first in a set of diaries. Discussing Brown's tendency to paranoia in 1996, Blair complains that it "was like dealing with a girlfriend who every time you looked at another woman thought you were having an affair with them."

OK, much of this had already reached the press. Stories of the rift provided red meat for Westminster correspondents throughout the Blair years. So too did accounts of Brown's uncertain temper; the hissy fits, the sulks, and the cell-phone throwing. But any such tales were routinely dismissed as journalistic tittle-tattle, notably by Campbell and Mandelson. Voters could choose between the word of the party spin-doctors or a scandal-loving press. Now the worst is confirmed—and by those who knew best. Says Sunder Katwala of the Labour think tank The Fabian Society: "Things that were implausibly denied at the time are just not deniable any more."

In fact, the malevolent intensity of the feud seems worse even than reported, deepening as a frustrated Brown waited for Blair to make good his promise to pass on the leadership. With control over the purse strings, the chancellor was well placed to block a clutch of reforms, particularly to the public services, that Blair wanted to implement. (Arguably, it was Brown's opposition to cutting back the role of the state that contributed to Britain's later financial woes and his own eventual ouster at the polls this year.) According to Mandelson, the prime minister at various times described his chancellor as "mad, bad and dangerous," "hair-raisingly difficult to work with" and "beyond redemption."

Does the new detail matter? Certainly, historians may be intrigued by Blair's apparent weakness in the face of his rival, ducking the challenge to sack his chancellor and risk splitting the party. At one point, according to Mandelson, he considered plans to curtail Brown's power—code-named Operation Teddy Bear—by stripping the Treasury of much of its power, but the plan was dropped. The picture that emerges is of a leader of unquestionable charm and ability flawed by indecision, fear of confrontation, and a distaste for the drearier day-to-day aspects of governance. "Blair was a politician who shied away from conflict," says history professor Kevin Theakston of Leeds University. "He liked to smooch and charm." Just as dangerously, he could be dismissive of colleagues' advice once his opinion was fixed: in Mandelson's words, he developed "tunnel vision" in his commitment to the 2003 Iraq War, the issue that cost him his popularity with the British public.

The timing too is unfortunate as Labour prepares to elect a new leader next month. Four of the five candidates are former ministers, all tagged with either the Blairite or Brownite label. Juicy memoirs will freshen the public's memories of the old internecine squabbles. In the words of Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley: "At this most dangerous time for Labour's future, yet more headline-grabbing rehashed descriptions of the ghastliness seem to me to be self-serving and undisciplined." Besides, that ghastliness is hard to square with the high moral tone that New Labour liked to affect. Brown liked to refer to his "moral compass." Blair talked of a government that would be "whiter than white." Whatever his memoirs add to the record, history may choose to remember the period in shades of gray.