By far the most interesting event of this week was the serialisation of the diaries of Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror. Ebury Press paid more than £1 million for this work, while the Daily Mail unloaded £250,000 on the serialisation alone. Piers Morgan is one of a circle of louche, not always savoury characters who have hung around Downing Street since the inception of the Blair regime in 1997, betraying the Blairs and being betrayed in return, in conditions of irredeemable moral squalor. This group includes party donors, lawyers, tabloid newspaper editors, PR men and a New Age therapist. It has come to define the Blair era as decisively as Joe Kagan and George Wigg defined Harold Wilson, or David Mellor and Jeffrey Archer set their seal on John Major.
At the start of his diary, Morgan, a prominent member of the upstart media class which New Labour has done so much to flatter and promote, proudly records his access to the Prime Minister: ‘22 lunches, six dinners, six interviews, 24 further one-to-one chats over tea and biscuits, and numerous phone calls.’ This in itself is a catastrophic commentary on the wretched condition into which the British democratic system has sunk in a matter of just two decades. Twenty years ago Margaret Thatcher had her relationship with the Sun. But she kept her distance, using intermediaries like Gordon Reece and various Central Office low life. She spared her face time for serious people. On extremely rare occasions, to be counted on the fingers of one hand, she travelled to Wapping, kicked off her shoes, and allowed Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, to meet her in person. She understood many things, among them mystique.
The Blairs, by contrast, have chosen to become intimate with tabloid editors. Given what we now know of Morgan’s spectacular access, it is worth bearing in mind that he was a very much less important figure in the eyes of the Blairs than Rebekah Wade, the present editor of the Sun. Yet Morgan is there at intimate little dinners and privy to incessant confidences, often from Blair direct, just as often from his lieutenant Alastair Campbell. As a result we get to learn much more than we would like of how Britain has been managed in the Blair years. It has been run by and for the tabloid press. Consider this horrid, ingratiating little remark about the murderess Myra Hindley made by a smirking home secretary Jack Straw to Piers Morgan at the 1997 Labour party conference: ‘Well, officially I fully intend to offer her the same rights as any other prisoner in Britain — but unofficially if you think I’m going down as the home secretary who released her, then you must be fucking joking.’
Or contemplate this miserable little story: the Daily Mirror pays the publicist Max Clifford £50,000 (Clifford has subsequently disputed not the transaction, but the sum of money involved: nearer £100,000, he says) for the tip that Cherie Blair is pregnant. Morgan rings to confirm the story with Downing Street, which passes it on to the Sun as well. An incandescent Morgan rings to complain: Tony Blair comes to the phone. ‘Piers, hi!’ says the Prime Minister, ‘you must believe me when I say I really didn’t want this news to come out like this. I don’t want you thinking we have been playing politics with our baby.’ In a pathetic bid to placate Morgan, Tony Blair spins him a line about how, by sheer chance, Rebekah Wade rang up Cherie, who felt obliged to give the Sun the story too. Morgan now says the Prime Minister was making all this up. Ten days later he is told by a Downing Street aide that ‘Cherie didn’t want her pregnancy used as some commercial tool, so she gave the story to Rebekah as well.’
This is a book of historic importance. Each prime minister gets the diarist he deserves. Margaret Thatcher had Alan Clark, saturnine, first-rate, arrogant. John Major had the misfortune to land Gyles Brandreth, ignorant, treacherous and trite. Tony Blair has now acquired Piers Morgan, providing tabloid prose for what has emerged in all fundamentals as a tabloid government. This book and its ghastly cast list — the lying spin-doctor Campbell, greedy Cherie Blair, conniving Peter Mandelson, and an incredible Prime Minister — set the seal on a dying epoch in British politics. Its timing is perfect for the start of the Labour election campaign under its egregious slogan, ‘Forward not Back’.
The immediate importance of the Morgan book is the way it shows the falsity of this phrase. As so often with New Labour, the public version of events is not the real story. Alastair Campbell, in a macabre example of history repeating itself as farce, has been brought back to mastermind the election campaign. He and Alan Milburn, the official campaign manager, have put Tony Blair at the centre of a presidential strategy. This has created a problem. In 2001 Blair could still be sold to the British people. Nowadays, as the Prime Minister’s embarrassing appearance on Woman’s Hour last Monday shows, he is widely regarded as a palpable fake. He is now a posthumous prime minister, in charge of a posthumous government, campaigning for a posthumous endorsement from the British people at the general election.
British politics can no longer move forward with Tony Blair, let alone the grotesque cast of characters who occupy Morgan’s book. I think that Blair sensed this at one point himself, which is why he nearly stepped down last summer. Gordon Brown was then the obvious alternative. The Chancellor seems to come out of Morgan’s remarkable document much better than Tony Blair does, laughing less at the Mirror editor’s impudent jokes, keeping his dignity and maintaining a proper discretion. This book shows how urgently Britain needs a more serious and grown-up politics than the Blair years have given us. We want a prime minister who devotes such spare time as he or she can muster at university high tables, with intellectuals, artists and hommes sérieux; not scheming with red-top editors.
Piers Morgan has produced a very sad book — a devastating commentary on the wretchedness of British political culture as we enter the 21st century. We need to change, to build something fresh and honest. Meanwhile New Labour sails into the election with Alastair Campbell at the helm and Tony Blair still aimlessly strutting his stuff. Rupert Murdoch and the Sun are fully on board. God save our souls.