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At the court of King Tony

Robert Salisbury reviews Lord Levy's memoirs

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

A Question of Honour Lord Michael Levy

Simon & Schuster, pp.310, 18.99

The commentariat has at last realised that in practice, if not in theory, the Labour Party believes in the hereditary principle. This is a phenomenon that those of us who, for one reason or another, have innate antennae for such things have long recognised. Homo sapiens in settled societies is more likely to follow anthropology than ideology and therefore successful politics has been more acutely analysed by Mary Douglas than by Marx.

What perhaps, however, has been forgotten in the rush to dump on Gordon Brown is quite how weird the Blair régime was. Michael Levy’s book provides us with a reminder. (In accordance with New Labour practice, he calls himself ‘Lord Michael Levy’ although the son of neither a duke nor a marquess.) Blair was an actor who only felt real when exposed to the roar of the greasepaint or, as Levy puts it, ‘a strongly religious man’s sincere faith in his own probity . . . and a frustrated actor’s instinct for tone and presentation’.

Blair was in a sense rootless. He did not spring from the Labour tribe. He craved approval and found confrontation difficult. As a result, when he could not avoid a row, especially with the incredible sulk next door, he made a hash of it. He much preferred either to be all things to all men or to use intermediaries to do his dirty work for him. Levy gives several examples of the latter expedient, but the most striking is the way Blair asked Levy to warn Robin Cook that he was about to be moved from the Foreign Office, reversing a promise Blair had made via Levy only weeks before the 2001 election.

Blair’s rootlessness encouraged him to rely overmuch on courtiers. All prime ministers, like successful generals, need a ‘family’: competent praetorians of unimpeachable loyalty. Macmillan had people like Philip de Zulueta and John Wyndham, Margaret Thatcher had Ian Gow and Charles Powell. Blair had Jonathan Powell (who, like other former servants, has sadly forsworn best practice and succumbed to the temptations of instant self-justification in print). However, he also craved the company of outsiders like himself. They duly swept into Downing Street in his wake and found the Sir Humphreys so relieved to see the back of the Tories that Whitehall cut them far too much slack. Peter Hennessy is wont to say ‘all we have is process’ and, from 1997, process suffered, degenerating into sofa government.

As a new Prime Minister who had never even been a Parliamentary Secretary, it is hardly surprising that Blair was nervous. The likes of Alastair Campbell, thuggish, tough, competent and professional, and Anji Hunter, flourished. So, however, did others.

Some were reminiscent of other régimes. Carole Caplin, who Levy confirms still has a guru-like status with both Tony and Cherie, reminds one irresistibly of the louche types who preyed on Marie Antoinette. The difference is that the Queen of France did not fraternise with Madame de la Motte and Cagliostro. Carole Caplin clearly appealed to a side of the Blairs that is not generally associated with the denizens of the Inns of Court.

Another outsider was Levy himself. He was born into a very humble, but devout Jewish family in East London. He was intelligent, tenacious and ambitious. He flipped a coin and decided, having rejected the rabbinate, to become an accountant rather than a lawyer. He used the opportunities presented, with great courage, to set up his own practice and eventually to found his own successful music business. He sold it and devoted his life to Jewish charities and, encouraged by a loyal but political wife, to Labour politics.

His political life was not one of smoke-filled rooms. Much of his business success had derived from his ability to ‘schmooze’ (his own word) successful men. When he met Blair, he recognised a fellow ‘schmoozer’ and became his host, friend and provider of refuge. For Blair, this courtier had another purpose. He knew how to schmooze people out of huge sums of money. Levy became his means of escape from his financial dependence on the Trades Unions. In due course, Levy’s close ties with Israel seemed to qualify him to act as a go-between in Blair’s efforts to play a part in the search for peace in Israel/Palestine. As a money-raiser, Levy was in his element. As a diplomat, he attracted more mixed reviews, although he acquired some Foreign Office admirers on the way.

Levy comes across as ambitious, vain and wholly lacking in false modesty. However, there is, from the book, something rather touching about him, perhaps because of his naiveté about Blair, the Labour Party and his faith in state funding for political parties. In spite of his growing disillusion with Blair, at the end of his book he reasserts his Panglossian faith. It is clearly substantially sustained by his cultural and religious ties to Judaism and his absolute love of his wife and children, both highly attractive traits. They certainly helped him survive the snakepit of the cash for peerages episode. However, much as one would like to accept this apologia pro vita sua at face value, one cannot help wondering how such a Candide could have survived both the music industry and New Labour on naiveté alone.

This is no doubt an unworthy sentiment. Nevertheless, whether Candide or not, it would be interesting to know if Lord Levy is ever bothered by the government his fund-raising helped to elect. He says he supports the Labour Party because he wants to make this country a fairer place. The social mobility and the education that made his career possible have been destroyed by his party and he and his colleagues have helped pull the ladder up behind them. New Labour Britain is startlingly like France in the 1840s, culturally adrift. ‘Messieurs, enrichissez-vous’!

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