Neil Kinnock on the Home Secretary’s ambitions, and Cameron

‘Call me Neil, for God’s sake,’ says Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty when he welcomes me to the chairman’s office at the British Council with its panoramic views over Whitehall and the South Bank. ‘That title makes me sound like the bloody Royal Albert Hall.’

Kinnock has always been too self-deprecating for his own good. Tony Blair’s propagandists like to suggest that Year Zero in the Labour party’s history was 1994, when their Dear Leader took charge. Others have longer memories: Kinnock heroically taking on the Militant Tendency, struggling to give the party some semblance of professionalism and, in the process, planting the seed that was one day to grow into a red rose for Mr Blair.

A youthful, almost boyish 64, Kinnock says the party’s good name is more important than his own — ‘just for the record, both Tony and Gordon have said some very nice things to me,’ he adds quickly — and he is clearly determined to be the very model of a former Labour leader.

He is reluctant to utter a word of criticism of the Prime Minister, but he does wish that Mr Blair had never announced his intention to relinquish office so very long before he actually had to do it. ‘Tony had hoped to calm things, but the moment those words passed his lips he was no longer master of his own destiny. Tony has now made up his mind about when he is going. People are writing acres about whether it will be May or July, but I don’t see that it makes a lot of difference.’

The question of who should succeed the Prime Minister seems to Kinnock a far more straightforward matter. ‘Gordon Brown, I make no bones about that. I hear all of this talk about a coronation, but that isn’t Labour’s way. If people don’t want to run against Gordon, that means that there is, at best, a very widespread admiration for him or, at worst, an acceptance of his stature and capabilities.

‘I don’t see the attraction of having a contest for its own sake. I have heard all of this speculation about John Reid — the man who, funnily enough, first introduced me to Gordon — but, while I respect him very much, I hope he won’t stand. Tony Benn said back in the 1980s that election contests in the Labour party can have a healing effect. Well, I’ll tell you, we nearly got healed to death back then.’

Kinnock said only half-jokingly that his freckles and receding red hair came between him and the electorate, and one wonders now whether Brown is enough of a television performer — or an orator — to be an effective modern prime minister. ‘Gordon is nobody’s beauty contestant, that is true, but people have conveniently forgotten that he first made his reputation not only by the force of his arguments but also his light-footedness in the Commons.

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‘I don’t know whether Tony’s reference to a big clunking fist was supposed to be an endorsement of Gordon or not, but he is not a man to use his fists. We are talking about someone with a breadth of interests, a man who has what Denis Healey would call “real hinterland”. What he won’t do in any affected way is to try to manifest that. It isn’t that he is shy or coy or anything; it just isn’t his style.’

When, finally, Blair does depart No. 10 Kinnock hopes that people will see his achievements in their proper perspective. ‘In terms of his domestic policies — health, education, the economy, for instance — he has been hugely successful. Iraq is the problem. That is what will have people saying, “Yes … but.”’

Kinnock sighs wearily when I mention the flap that followed Blair’s failure to contradict Sir David Frost when the broadcaster suggested to him that Iraq had been ‘pretty much of a disaster’. ‘Well, it has hardly been a roaring success, has it? All I would say is that I believe Tony has acted in a principled way from the very beginning of this conflict. Whatever criticism people can make of him, they can’t accuse him of inconsistency or the lack of a courageous motive. I stand back from it all and reflect on the things people have said — and think what a blood sport politics is.

‘In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — I am talking within hours of it happening — Tony decided to pursue a policy of engagement for influence. That was essential in order to give a keel to US foreign policy, without which they were quite capable of lashing out all over the place. I think Tony made a very serious contribution to try to get a rational response to that appalling mass murder.

‘My deep concern about Iraq relates to the fact that there was virtually no preparation for what would happen after the war. I know now that Colin Powell had drawn up a sound plan to deal with the aftermath of the war. The tragedy is that Powell’s plans were shredded by Rumsfeld and Cheney and probably George Bush.

‘I believed for a very long time — and I argued it at the time of the first desert war — that Saddam Hussein was not only a repellent mass murderer but also a perpetual source of instability in the region and therefore an effort to bring his regime to an end was justifiable. What Tony is stuck with now — what we are all stuck with — is not the consequences of war but the consequences of not making those preparations.

‘We have now to continue on the war front, difficult though it is, and even more on the peace front. I have no time for those people who say we ought to set a date to pull out. If you do that, you let the calendar do the work of the insurgents. There is no target bigger or easier than a retreating army.’

He has seen the Prime Minister at close enough quarters to know the toll that it is taking on him. ‘It’s crushed his confidence and optimism at times, but he knows how much worse it is for the Muslim fathers of those kids who are in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would say these are the people we should be thinking about without any piousness or false humility, because that’s the way he is built.’

Kinnock does not, however, share Mr Blair’s affection for President Bush. ‘It has nothing much to do with him being a Republican. Damn it, Abe Lincoln was a Republican. My concerns about Bush from day one or before he was elected — or not elected — emanate from the people he has chosen to mix with: the Project for the New American Century group, for instance. Bush’s father, when he was president, said Wolfowitz and Perle and all the people who put that together were no more than fringe thinkers.

‘These fringe thinkers, just a few years later, were to be found in the West Wing advising his son and they published a strategic doctrine of the United States of America. Their unilateralism over a wide spectrum of policy — trade, development, defence, international relations in general — causes deep concern among people in the United States of America and more widely.’

Not all conservatives are baddies to Kinnock these days. He could see virtue in John Major, if not Mrs Thatcher, and he has some time, too, for David Cameron. ‘He is very sparky, smart fellow. I have only met him once or twice, but I observe him. I think, however, that he has taken a decision on strategy which requires him to appear to be shallow. He knows that elections are fought and won on the middle ground. He also knows that he really can’t shift Labour off the middle ground.

‘And so all he can say for the time being is “I am on the middle ground too”.’ Get to election time, and that will change to “We are the compassionate, decent, reasonable, wonderful, touchy-feely Conservatives who are also on the middle ground but the thing about us is that we are new” and that’s about it.

‘But I am not going to be scornful about the direction in which he is taking his party. I approve of it. There are, however, clearly people in his party who do not agree with him, and I think if he is going to be convincing he is going to have to take them on. He mustn’t do it because he wants to provoke a Bournemouth moment — when I took on the Militant Tendency in the early days of my leadership — or a Clause 4 moment. He’s got to do it because he feels in his heart it’s the right thing to do.’

Tim Walker is Mandrake editor and theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated