Anthony Sampson

Diary - 3 April 2004

A new biography of Eden demonstrates the parallels with the current PM

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Has any prime minister been quite so insulated from Parliament and Cabinet? Blair’s solo performance last week, as he flew from Madrid to Libya to Brussels with his plane-load of captive journalists, was another reminder of how far Britain’s foreign policy revolves around a single man; while the procession departing from No. 10 has left him personally more isolated. As I’ve been inspecting again the Anatomy of Britain, I’ve been looking for times when No. 10 was similarly holed up over the last half-century. It’s true that Macmillan, Wilson and Thatcher were often accused of overcentralising power, but they all kept closer links with Parliament than has Blair, even in a crisis. The closest parallel was Sir Anthony Eden in 1956, as I’m reminded by his sympathetic new biographer D.R. Thorpe. Eden appeared similarly isolated after the Suez war — before the doctors came. In fact the Iraq war is now showing still more resemblances to Suez: both prime ministers ignored warnings from lawyers, diplomats and the military when they went to war. And contrary to popular myths about ‘oil wars’, they both ignored the interests of the oil companies. Eden claimed to be defending Britain’s interests, yet the companies with most to lose, Shell and BP, were against the Suez war (as I realised when I later wrote a book about them). And a year ago Lord Browne of BP and Sir Philip Watts of Shell were likewise warning against a war which they feared would disrupt their supplies — with good reason, as the high oil-price now testifies.

No. 10 is certainly looking more like a fortress under siege; but the exception is Lord Falconer, whose relaxed metabolism seems immune to any worry. Blair clearly needs him not only as a loyal friend but also as a kind of court jester who can defuse any tension. ‘Both Tony and Cherie can become quite tense,’ as one friend described them, ‘but Charlie is always laidback.’ He visibly enjoys his new role of politician as opposed to QC, and is unfazed by the complaints of senior judges, headed by Lord Woolf. When I talked to him for my Anatomy he sounded like a Scots rationalist surveying strange English tribes. His father and grandfather, he explained, were dedicated solicitors in Scotland: it wouldn’t have occurred to him to go into the law to make money. When I suggested that the educational background of English judges was too uniform, he replied, ‘It’s stunning.’ I said, ‘I assume we’re talking off the record?’ He replied, ‘Oh no, I prefer talking on the record,’ and extended his criticism: ‘It’s not plausible that there are not women equally good.’ It was refreshing to hear a Lord Chancellor criticising his own profession so candidly. But isn’t he in danger of playing into the hands of the real scourge of the judges, David Blunkett? There had been much more open criticism of judges in the Lord Chancellor’s office, I was told by one civil servant there, since the departure of Lord Irvine — which has strengthened Blunkett’s position.

Cherie Blair has found her own way of escaping the claustrophobia of No. 10. She’s clearly taking very seriously her book on prime ministers’ wives, which is being co-written by her friend Lady Bragg. She has shown special interest in Clarissa Avon, the widow of Sir Anthony Eden, who has vivid memories of living through the Suez crisis. She has also talked to relations of Lady Dorothy Macmillan. And she even went to Salisbury to lunch with Ted Heath, to find out what it was like not to have a wife in No. 10. He surprised her by telling her that he coped quite well with a staff in No. 10 of only 82 — less than half the present count. But no previous chatelaine has had the same burden of responsibilities as Cherie: as Prime Minister’s wife, mother of four, and practising QC. And none had been an active politician in their own right, like Cherie. The only previous PM’s wife who was herself a public figure was Margot Asquith, and she was never a very serious politician. The obvious comparison is with Hillary Clinton; and I suspect the real inside story of No. 10 will emerge only when and if Cherie, like Hillary, writes her own memoirs. For she has had a unique insight into the real political tensions of our time, as her own passionate concerns with human rights came up against the pressures of war and terrorism.

Will we ever know what is really going on inside No. 10? Many of my own insights have come from emails which provided so many titbits to the Hutton inquiry — as opposed to the unrevealing Hutton report. They were like those outspoken and bloodthirsty notes which politicians used to exchange by post when there were several deliveries a day, which provided gems for later historians. It seems surprising that Blair’s advisers tapped out emails to each other even when they were just next door. Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, told his colleagues how the first draft of the controversial dossier designed to justify a war ‘does nothing to demonstrate a threat’. Tom Kelly, the press officer, told Powell, ‘There is now a game of chicken with the Beeb.’ The denizens of No. 10, I’m told, had no idea that their emails would be preserved — like the conspirators in the White House during the Watergate scandal whose four-letter conversations were unwittingly being recorded by Nixon’s secret machines, which would provide evidence for Nixon’s impeachment. Whitehall, of course, is now much more cautious about emailing any incriminating comments. Yet it is in the nature of all bureaucrats, I suspect, to want to commit their views to posterity. And already those hectic notes have provided a windfall for any contemporary chronicler who wants to convey the frenzied hothouse atmosphere which comes with overcentralised power.

To keep an eye on No. 10 I’ve recently been turning to the engrossing website with the unpromising title of Public Administration Select Committee. The chairman, Tony Wright, MP, is a political scientist who is determined to uncover the secrets of power and has been questioning key witnesses about, for instance, who really wields the royal prerogative, how much freedom of information we have, or how people get honours. Next month (May) he will even be allowed to question Alastair Campbell. The committee has thrown new light on the centralising in No. 10 and in particular how it influences the honours system with its patronage and obsession with celebs. ‘I do not like celebrity culture,’ Kenneth Clarke told them, ‘and I think the overlay of lacing it all up with a few celebrities should be wiped out altogether.’ ‘How you get an honour,’ said Kate Hoey, the former minister for sport, ‘is really about how well-known you are and how popular you are in Downing Street.’

Anthony Sampson’s new Anatomy of Britain, Who Runs this Place?, is published by John Murray next week