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Tony Blair, deficit hawk? That's the most interesting news to come out of the former British Prime Minister's just-published memoir, A Journey (Knopf, $35). The 700-plus-page doorstop of a book combines a defense of the Iraq War with a psychoanalysis of Gordon Brown—Blair's Labour colleague, rival, and successor—choice tidbits about the Queen, a modest appreciation of George W. Bush, and even a riff on the writer's drinking habits.
The most startling section deals with Blair's rejection of "the whole package of massive Keynesian deficit spending," as he writes in the book. "If governments don't tackle deficits, the bill is footed by taxpayers, who fear that big deficits mean big taxes, both of which reduce confidence, investment, and purchasing power." Sounds like a line from the office of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. The current Tory PM, who has startled the world with his vows to shrink government spending massively, is doubtless pleased to get support for his plans from a three-time election winner: His aides put choice sentences from Blair's memoir on Twitter throughout the day of publication.
Blair, now a millionaire and an adviser to JPMorgan Chase (JPM), also comes out against taxes on the rich and defends the big banks in the wake of the credit crunch that battered Britain. "Government also failed," he writes of the crisis. "Regulations failed. Politicians failed. Monetary policy failed."
These lapses happened on Gordon Brown's watch after he had succeeded Blair at 10 Downing Street. Blair's relationship with Brown was one of the most tortured in modern British politics, and the book uses soap-operatic language to describe it. "Like lovers desperate to get to love-making," Blair writes about himself and Gordon Brown early in their intertwined careers. Brown was, in turn, mentor, closest political friend, and bitterest enemy. Blair makes it clear he now thinks that handing the reins of power to Brown was a mistake. "I had a feeling that my going and being succeeded by Gordon was also terminal for the government," Blair writes. "I discovered there was a lacuna—not the wrong instinct, but no instinct at the human, gut level. Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero. Gordon is a strange guy."
There are other guy relationships. "We were political soul-mates," Blair says of himself and Bill Clinton. "He was a great guy, and good president, and above all he was a friend." Then there was the man from Texas. Before its publication, the book was described by British tabloid News of the World as "a love letter to George W. Bush." That's not really fair, though Blair does go gently on his U.S. ally. "George had a great sense of humour," he writes of the second President Bush, adding that W. "was self-effacing and self-deprecatory in an attractive way. He was very smart." The closest he gets to criticism is in a discussion of foreign policy: "George had immense simplicity on how he saw the world. Right or wrong, it led to decisive leadership."
For a political memoir, the book is a surprisingly good read. Granted, it contains more purple prose than the British are used to from their Prime Ministers. Take, for example, this passage dealing with his wife: "That night I needed that love Cherie gave me. … I devoured it to give me strength, I was an animal following my instinct."
Yet Blair could always tell a joke. He recounts how he stood next to the British monarch at a ceremony, which featured acrobats performing without a safety net, to celebrate the start of the millennium. Blair says that during the show he was chiefly concerned that the next day's headline would be "Queen Killed by Trapeze Artist at Dome: Blair Admits Not All Has Gone to Plan."
What is lacking is the confession and apology for misdeeds sought by his domestic opponents, many of them, it seems these days, in his own party. More than 100 pages are devoted to Blair's decision to join the war against Iraq. The former Prime Minister has the good grace to acknowledge that his explanation won't change many minds.
The bottom line: Blair's memoir has a strongly conservative tone, especially about deficits and taxes.