Is Tony Blair the Hulk?

An insider account of the buildup to war with Iraq shows the British prime minister didn't kowtow to Bush -- but it won't reassure critics who opposed the rush to Baghdad.


Tina Brown
June 26, 2003 11:39PM (UTC)

Former Times of London editor Peter Stothard's new book, "Thirty Days," his Bob Woodwardian, up-close-and-personal diary of the scene at No. 10 Downing Street as Blair and his inner circle prepared for the war with Iraq, will be eagerly seized by the P.M.'s doting U.S. fans. It will not reassure British critics, however, like Claire Short, who think that the country's affairs are run by a small circle of the prime minister's court. But then, war cabinets tend to be close-knit and impatient with what they see as the less well-informed skeptics on the outside.

Stothard paints a portrait of a prime minister in a hurry, for whom the Labor Party and the House of Commons itself are just obstacles he has to navigate to get what he wants done.

Advertisement:

Blair is now formidably tough. Perhaps he always was, beneath his mannerly charm. As Stothard notes, "He has grown used to winning arguments, to winning elections, to defeating opposition in his party, to almost destroying his official opposition in Parliament. He has discovered that he can absorb attack after attack and still be left standing." And, it seems, in the aftermath of war, the worst is yet to come.

Has Tony Blair turned into the Hulk? The hero of the new comic strip action flick, a young scientist called Bruce Banner, is a brilliant and diffident charmer until his moral ire is aroused; then he becomes a colossal mass of bright green muscle, able to smash everything around him. Like the Hulk, and unlike Bush, Blair doesn't flex the muscle unless pushed. When one of his team oversteps the mark in some moment of levity, Stothard describes how the normally genial Blair will shoot him "a look" -- a warning that the Bruce Banner persona might harden into something else. It explains why, in one memorable vignette, as they are about to leave for a trip to Washington, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw scuttles back into Downing Street to retrieve the prime minister's forgotten glasses -- a gesture of subservience hard to imagine coming from a Lord Carrington or a Colin Powell (though not, perhaps, from a Condi Rice).

Stothard makes a persuasive case that Blair's Iraq policy was based on conviction, not on kowtowing to America. The Bush/Blair relationship is one of deal partners, rather than prayer partners. No one at this point should attribute Blair's position on Iraq to sycophancy. "What amazes me is how happy people are for Saddam to stay," he ruminates to his team. "They ask why we don't get rid of Mugabe, why not the Burmese lot. Yes, let's get rid of them all. I don't because I can't, but when you can, you should."

Blair's implacable resolve derives from "layers of toughness," as he describes it, grown in the course of years of political fights. Some of it, however, is deeply personal.

One of the most difficult flak storms of his six years in office was the incident last year when his wife was torn apart in the debacle of "Cheriegate."

Readers didn't get more than a whiff of it here, but it was a six-week-long row about Mrs. Blair's errors of judgment when, as middleman to get a bargain on the purchase of an apartment in Bristol for her son Euan (who's at school there), she used the boyfriend of her exercise trainer, who turned out to be a convicted con man. Her error was not the mistake itself so much as embarrassing the Downing Street press office. Kept out of the loop by Cherie, they issued misleading statements and the tabloids went bananas. Mrs. Blair, until that point a respected lawyer, was depicted as either a flake, a liar or so hopelessly out of it that it made her ambitions to become a judge into a joke.

Advertisement:

For Blair, it was a nightmare.

Only the husband of this proud professional woman could know how wounding it was to have the underbelly of Cherie's domestic improvising laid bare and ridiculed. It revealed the kind of ad hoc messiness that is the embarrassing secret in every frantic two-career marriage.

Advertisement:

No doubt Blair feels keenly how god-awful it is for his family to live above the turmoil of the political store and feels much guilt about their invasions of privacy. You get the picture when Cherie shouts a harassed phone message down the stairs from the Downing Street flat to Blair's political team as 3-year-old Leo Blair bowls through the historic corridors with his plastic cart delivering chocolate wagon wheels to the prime minister. One longs to know what the more left-leaning Mrs. Blair really thought about going into Iraq. Was the Blair household divided like so many others? Cherie is missing in action from Stothard's book, and one feels her nonpresence is more than wifely discretion. Her wounds from Cheriegate are palpable.

Going after Cherie so mercilessly was the last fingernail the press could pull out. It left the prime minister impervious to criticism and ready for moral risk. His stand on Iraq was not so much a trial as a kind of liberation.


Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

MORE FROM Tina Brown


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

British Election Iraq Middle East

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •