Tony Blair — a “dangerous” leader · 6 February 2010
Much has been written on the “leadership” qualities – for better or worse – of Tony Blair. Most of the recent focus had been on the appearance of Blair before the ongoing Iraq War Inquiry. Yet, from what I have read, the evidence of Clare Short tells us more about Blair’s “leadership” than Blair’s own appearance. She described his leadership-style as “unsafe” – and she is right! In fact, it was downright dangerous.
Reading Short’s comments I was reminded of Napoleon who, of course, had his own war plans. Like Blair, Napoleon’s invasion of another country – in this case Russia – went awry.
SIR MARTIN GILBERT: When it came to the actual discussion of the new Iraq policy framework, we asked Mr Blair … whether it had been discussed in Cabinet, and he replied that it had not been discussed in Cabinet, but he went on to tell us: “The discussion we had in Cabinet was substantive discussion.” Do you recall such a discussion and what was your contribution to it at that time?
SHORT: The first thing to say … the Cabinet doesn’t work in the way, and didn’t under the whole of the time I was in government, in the way that, according to our constitutional theory, it is supposed to work. I mean, the meetings were very short. There were never papers. There were little chats about things, but it wasn’t a decision making body in any serious way, and I don’t remember at all Iraq coming to the Cabinet in any way whatsoever at that time.
SIR MARTIN GILBERT: So the phrase “substantive discussion” is not as you recall?
SHORT: I do not think there was substantive discussion, I am afraid, of anything at the Cabinet. … if ever you raised an issue that you wanted to bring to the Cabinet, Tony Blair would see you beforehand and cut it off, saying, “We don’t want those things coming to the Cabinet”, which he did to me in July before we broke up for the summer, when the Cabinet doesn’t meet, when there was stuff in press about Iraq and I said, “I really think we should have a discussion about Iraq”, and he said, “I do not want us to because it might leak into the press”. … I raised my concerns at Cabinet repeatedly, but what we had at Cabinet were little chats. They weren’t decision making meetings. So Tony would say, “Well, Jack, you have been to see Colin Powell”, and that had all been in the press anyway, “Why don’t you tell us how the meeting went?” So Jack would make a few jokes, as he does, and so on.
Napoleon, who had come to power in 1799, had a similar approach. By 1809, members of the Napoleon’s Council of State holding dissenting opinions now offered them cautiously. Napoleon would say: “Read the draft proposal aloud.” He would then give his view on the decision that should be made, before concluding: “Does someone wish to speak about the wording?”
SIR RODERIC LYNE: I would like to go back into the machinery of government that you mentioned. You said there wasn’t substantive discussion in Cabinet, but the argument we have heard from Mr Blair, from Jonathan Powell, from Alastair Campbell, among other witnesses, is essentially that it didn’t matter if the official Cabinet Committee didn’t meet or if, indeed, committees were ad hoc with a small “a” and a small “h”, but that what mattered was that policy on Iraq was being discussed intensively with the relevant people, with the appropriate information, with challenge, with risk assessment, with diversity of views. Was that the impression you had?
SHORT: Absolutely not. The government doesn’t, and didn’t, work like that. It is partly the 24hour news thing. So everything is for the media. Power is pulled into Number 10. Everything is announced to the media. After the guillotines came in, the House of Commons is now a rubber stamp, it doesn’t scrutinise, things are guillotined.
Louis Bourreinne, Napoleon’s first secretary, noted that Napoleon worked hard to ensure that the media got the story right. He wrote news “bulletins from the battle fields and his campaigns to be published in the ‘Moniteur’ newspaper. These bulletins always announced what Bonaparte wished to be believed true.” Normally, “there was falsity in the exaggerated descriptions of his victories, and falsity again in the suppression or palliation of his reverses and losses”.
SHORT: I think the machinery of government in Britain now is unsafe … bills are properly not thought through policy. That’s a general critique. In the case of Iraq, there was secretiveness and deception on top of that. So I heard Tony Blair talking when he gave evidence to you about an ad hoc committee with a small “a” and small “h”. I simply don’t accept that. There were no minutes. It is just not a proper way to proceed. If you are discussing things that other departments are supposed to know about and are supposed to be preparing for, and they are completely excluded from the discussion and don’t know what the government is planning, I think this is a chaotic.
According to Bourreinne, Napoleon “never neglected any artifice to conceal, as long as possible, his designs”. Not dissimilar was Napoleon’s approach to allocating responsibilities, as described by one of his lieutenants: “In the government that he established, each person was occupied only with the particular area that he was authorised to deal with, and the benefits he could expect from it.”
SIR RODERIC LYNE: You don’t think that they were really looking at a range of options and at all the possible risks in this course.
SHORT: I presume you are looking at the leaked documents. The Downing Street memo now tells it all; that Blair had given his word that he was in favour regime change and would be with Bush.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: We will come back to that, but you could see who the people were around the Prime Minister advising him, although, clearly, you weren’t one of them. But wasn’t this a group that was pretty expert and diverse? Did it have expertise in the Middle East?
SHORT: Well, one, I didn’t know they were meeting, two, it is an ingroup. That’s the way Number 10 worked. You keep Tony’s favour and Alistair doesn’t brief against you, if you do whatever they want, and challenge is the opposite. Indeed, I have a friend who was doing research at the time, and therefore interviewing people at Number 10, and a message came back to me that I shouldn’t keep challenging in the Cabinet. I was making myself unpopular. … Yes, I have seen it since. Could I just say another thing? The Foreign Office, as you will know, had some famous Arabists, who spoke Arabic, who had served in the Arab world. I think they were kept completely marginalised, not allowed to give their advice. They were seen as dangerous because they might not agree.
General Caulaincourt, whom Napoleon had a particular liking for, was a former French Ambassador to Russia and knew something about winter in Moscow. He persisted – during a five hour conversation – in trying to dissuade him from invading Russia in 1812 (many years later, Goering had a conversation of similar length with Hitler on the same issue, and Colin Powell had a long conversation with George W. Bush). Napoleon’s response was to “jokingly” say: “You don’t believe in spoiling me.” But Napoleon was not happy with Caulaincourt’s views and he was later warned by General Duroc, that “the Emperor was more incensed against me than ever. He observed that … when the Emperor discussed business with me I appeared to be putting him in the wrong, and that this irritated him.”
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Okay. Why do you think you were kept out of the policy planning process? Was it because it didn’t concern your department or was it because Number 10 didn’t trust you? … You probably saw the answer you had from Alastair Campbell.
SHORT: Yes, indeed. He and I never got on. I didn’t obey him, and, therefore, he would brief against you and that’s how the government worked.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: I would like to come back to that last point in a minute, but just pursuing the machinery of government just one more step first, I mean, what we have heard from Mr Blair, Mr Powell, Mr Campbell, is that the Iraq decisions were effectively very much a personal judgment that the Prime Minister of the day made, that this was based on the very strong convictions, which, indeed, he described to us in his evidence on Friday, but they have argued that it was his responsibility as a leader, as Prime Minister, to take the tough decisions and that these were then endorsed by the Cabinet. You said it wasn’t substantive discussion, Mr Blair said it was. It is a Cabinet of which you were a member. Then these decisions were endorsed by the House of Commons, of which you are still a member. Now, if you and other Cabinet ministers weren’t satisfied with the information you were getting, you weren’t satisfied with the level of debate or the decisions, surely it was up to all of you to do something about it?
SHORT: The first thing to say is that I noticed Tony Blair in his evidence to you, kept saying “I had to decide, I had to decide”, and, indeed, that’s how he behaved, but that is not meant to be our system of government. It is meant to be a Cabinet system, because, of course, if you had a presidential system, you would put better checks into the legislature. So we were getting his view that he decided, him and his mates around him, the ones that he could trust to do whatever it was he decided, and then the closing down of normal communications and then this sort of drip feed of little chats to the Cabinet. Now, that’s a machinery of government question and there is a democratic question, but, also, there is a competence of decision making question, because I think, if you do things like that, and they are not challenged and they are not thought through, errors are made, and I think we have seen the errors.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: But the Cabinet endorsed this.
Caulaincourt wrote that as the Grand Army marched toward Moscow and doom, the passivity continued: “As the Emperor wanted to do everything himself and give every order, no one, not even the Chief-of-Staff, dared to assume the most responsibility.” “The King of Naples (Marshal Joachim Murat) was better able to appreciate these troubles than anyone, and he told the rest of us about them when he chatted with us. He even ventured to make some remarks to this effect to the Emperor, but His Majesty did not care for reflections that ran counter to his projects, and lent a deaf ear. He changed the subject; and the King of Naples, who above all wished to please him – and who flattered his vanity at the same time, by doing so – kept to himself the wise reflections which he had voiced to us alone.”
SHORT: It was hardly an endorsement. By then, everything was very, very fraught, enormous pressures and it kind of I think he misled the Cabinet. He certainly misled me, but people let it through.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Sorry, who misled the Cabinet?
SHORT: The Attorney General. I think now we know everything we know about his doubts and his changes of opinion and what the Foreign Office legal advisers were saying and that he had got this private side deal that Tony Blair said there was a material breach when Blix was saying he needed more time. I think for the Attorney General to come and say there is an unequivocal legal authority to go to war was misleading, and I must say, I never saw myself as a traditionalist, but I was stunned by it, because of what was in the media about the view of international lawyers, but I thought, “This is the Attorney General coming just in the teeth of war to the Cabinet. It must be right”, and I think he was misleading us.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Okay. In your book you wrote about Lord Goldsmith’s final advice which you have just referred to and you said there: “It is difficult not to believe he was leant on.” Now, Lord Goldsmith has denied that he acted under pressure. He said he reached a purely legal decision in his evidence, and Mr Blair said that he could not recall any specific discussions that he had had with Lord Goldsmith at this critical stage and he said that Lord Goldsmith had given legal advice and that this was: “… done in a way which we were satisfied was correct and right.” Now, do you accept what Lord Goldsmith and Mr Blair have said about this?
SHORT: I am afraid I don’t. I noticed that Lord Goldsmith said he was excluded from lots of meetings. That is a form of pressure. Exclusion is a form of pressure. … I noticed the chief legal adviser in the Foreign Office said in his evidence that he had sent something and Number 10 wrote, “Why is this in writing?” I think that speaks volumes about the way they were closing down normal communication systems in Whitehall.
Napoleon knew how to use “exclusion” as a “form of pressure”. He wanted Caulaincourt to tell the Russian ambassador that France stood by its alliance with Russia. Caulaincourt later wrote: “Since it was clear enough … that all he wanted of me was that I should allay Russia’s suspicions so that he might gain time, I avoided becoming his intermediary, and begged the Emperor to entrust … (another official) with any communications he might wish to make to the Russian Government. … “This suggestion greatly displeased him, and brought our conversation to a summary conclusion. Henceforth the Emperor, besides persecuting my friends, inflicted on me every sort of vexation which could be inflicted on a State official, even to the extent of withholding payments to which I was entitled. He let slip no occasion to make me feel the weight of his displeasures, and replied to my complaints about my financial claims by pleading ignorance of the matter.” General Duroc advised Caulaincourt against resignation: “Less than ever is this the moment to take such a step. You will lose your friends and ruin yourself. Have patience, and things will straighten out. Just now the Emperor is annoyed with you; but he holds you in esteem; he is even fond of you. … Things will straighten out, I tell you, if you do not lose your head and put yourself in the wrong.” But, “there was no alteration in the Emperor’s acerbity towards me.” “During the winter there were many festivities, full-dress balls and masked balls. At the state ball (February, 1812) I was the only high official not included in the grand quadrille with the Empress and Princesses. I was likewise passed over, or rather I was the only high official not invited, to supper at the Empress’s table. So far as the supper was concerned I took this rebuff lightly, for it was possible to consider invitations to that as a personal matter; but as the quadrille concerned one of the prerogatives of my position and was much commented upon, I considered it my duty to lodge a complaint.” “The Emperor sent me word that the omission of my name had been a mistake; but I learnt from Duroc, to whom he had dictated the list that it had been intentional.”
SHORT: No, I do not have any evidence, but I think him (Goldsmith) changing his mind three times in a couple of weeks, and then even in order to say unequivocally there was legal authority, to require Tony Blair to secretly sign a document saying that Iraq was in material breach, and not to report any of that to the Cabinet, is so extraordinary and by the way, I see that both Tony Blair and he said the Cabinet were given the chance to ask questions. That is untrue.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: That is really my next question, because 16 in March 2005, after you left office, you wrote to Lord Goldsmith stating that in the Cabinet meeting of 17 March, you had attempted to initiate a discussion but that this was not allowed. What was it that you were trying to discuss in the Cabinet on 17 March, and why were you not able to do so?
SHORT: I had asked for that special meeting with the Attorney General and it had been readily agreed that it would take place. That was the first time he came to the Cabinet that I’m aware of. … There was a piece of paper round the table. We normally didn’t have any papers, apart from the agenda. It was the PQ answer, which we didn’t know was a PQ answer then, and he started reading it out, so everyone said “We can read”, you know, we didn’t and then so he everyone said, “That’s it”. I said, “That’s extraordinary. Why is it so late? Did you change your mind?” and they all said, “Clare!” Everything was very fraught by then and they didn’t want me arguing, and I was kind of jeered at to be quiet. That’s what happened.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: So you went quiet?
SHORT: If he won’t answer and the Prime Minister is saying, “Be quiet”, and that’s it, no discussion, there is only so much you can do, and on this, because I see the Prime Minister the Attorney, the then Attorney, to be fair to him, says he was ready to answer questions but none were put. I did ask him later, because there was then the morning War Cabinet, or whatever you call it, that he did come to and he gave all sorts of later legal advice, and I asked him privately, “How come it was so late?” and he said, “Oh, it takes me a long time to make my mind.”