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Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of Historyby Peter Stothard
'This is your fiftieth birthday present, Prime Minister,' says Strategy Director Alastair Campbell as Tony Blair comes in through the Downing Street front door. 'Peter Stothard is going to follow you everywhere you go for fifty days.'
The recipient of this gift looks as though almost anything would be better than having a writer at his side as he enters the most difficult days of his political life. Campbell concedes with a wolfish grin, 'Well, a month then. Thirty days.'
Tony Blair sighs. He had agreed a few weeks ago for a writer from The Times MagazineM to be with him on the path to war with Iraq. These were extraordinary days. His fiftieth birthday was coming up soon. It had seemed like a good idea.
Like many good resolutions it does not seem so attractive now that it is time to put it into practice. Little is going right. He does not even know that he has thirty days left behind the black door of Number Ten.
Politicians do sometimes take the risk of inviting a journalist in 'to see them as they really are'. This is only either when they need the publicity or when they have a high degree of control. But no Prime Minister, however confident, has ever before taken that risk.
Tony Blair decides to stick with his decision. He will have a closely observed record of his leadership in the war against Saddam Hussein. He does not know what the record will be. His 'fly on the wall' will be a former editor of The Times who supported his programme to become leader of the Labour Party in 1994 but did not support him in the 1997 election which brought him to power.
To have me with him for thirty days will not be like having a total stranger in the corner of the room. But neither will he have a lifelong political supporter with him, or even one who shares many of his views.
6 March 2003, the day Tony Blair invited his chronicler through the door, was no better than any other day at this time. Britain had become an angry country. Millions of voters, particularly young voters who five years before had hailed his 'Cool Britannia', were enraged that a Labour Prime Minister, a New Labour Prime Minister, the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979, seemed about to send bombers to the civilians of Baghdad.
Worse even than bombing Iraqis who had 'never done the British any harm' was bombing them at the behest of a 'Daddy's Boy' American President. Britain, they shouted, should just let George Bush get on with fighting his father's old enemy, Saddam Hussein.
Those who knew a bit of history recalled that another Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson in the 1960s, kept Britain out of America's Vietnam nightmare. Why couldn't Tony Blair do the same?
The protesters knew that they had allies at the highest levels of the Labour government. Clare Short was a respected figure of the old Labour left. She had an official position in the Cabinet as International Development Secretary, and an unofficial position as the 'conscience of the party'. She was said to be enraged at what was about to be done 'in her name'.
The 'Not in my Name' slogan was on banners and T-shirts from Bristol to Dundee. A million people had marched in London. The Italians and the Spanish were marching. They too had leaders who backed George Bush when their voters did not.
Tony Blair's first words in the Number Ten front hall were a complaint about how he could not get his message across. I doubt if I sounded very sympathetic. Politicians forever complain to editors that they are prevented by unseen powers, never themselves, from 'getting their message across'.
Inside the building there was a rush of people on the move. We were about to go to Chile, whose President was suddenly a pivotal player in the attempts to swing the United Nations squarely behind the war.
I went back home for my passport, told the magazine that I would take the 'fiftieth birthday' assignment, and barely left Tony Blair's home, office, advisers, officials and political life for the next month. In those thirty days he faced the most hostile attacks from his voters, his supporters and his party. He faced fierce opposition in Europe and he forged a controversial partnership with a President of the United States who seemed at first so unlike him in so many ways. He saw a personal and a political challenge ahead, and seized them both. A man who was once known as consensual, accommodating, even insecure at times, behaved as a man possessed of certainty. He used occasionally to talk about history with journalists. Now he had just given a newspaper interview in which he said that history would be his judge.
Events fell one upon the other with tumultuous speed. The fiftieth birthday was scarcely mentioned ever again. We never went to Chile. We did sit together while the Prime Minister 'worked the phones' with other leaders, spoke to envoys from around the world, was taken for buggy rides by George Bush at Camp David and repaid the hospitality, according to the strange ways of modern diplomacy, at a castle in Belfast.
We were together in Parliament as he prepared for the debate which nearly cost him his job — and also when he weighed his responsibility for those who, as a result, had lost their lives. For thirty days I was close by him at historic events — in the places where writers never are.
The foregoing is excerpted from Thirty Days by Peter Stothard. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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