sat 25/05/2019

The Tony Blair Interview with Andrew Marr, BBC Two: The Overnight Review | reviews, news & interviews

The Tony Blair Interview with Andrew Marr, BBC Two: The Overnight Review

The Tony Blair Interview with Andrew Marr, BBC Two: The Overnight Review

Blair is cautiously candid in first in-depth interview since leaving office

'Gordon Brown's people were perpetually dissing me,' says Blair, as he reveals more of thorny relationship

Tony Blair’s style of leadership was often mocked for being “presidential”, but last night it was Andrew Marr, in sober suit/ shocking orange tie combo, who gave off something of that self-assured “presidential” air. Standing outside No 10, Marr addressed the people in his smoothly measured, gently emphatic way. He is, of course, an interviewer we feel we can trust (not to be flim-flammed or bamboozled), but, really, we already knew that this was hardly going to be the political TV interview of the decade – just, more or less, a reaffirmation of everything Tony Blair always knew and believed in. And then, as the music started, we got a montage of Blair heads, a brief then and now encounter, which once again had us exclaiming “God, he’s aged.”  Could it get any more exciting than this?

It had its moments. First off, Marr quoted Blair using the word “dissing”. In the first of many punctuations to the main interview helpfully summarising Blair’s premiership in bite-sized chunks of archive footage and voiceover, Marr repeated that, in his “battle to change Britain”, Blair felt he’d been thwarted from inside his party at every turn and that after his third election victory “Gordon Brown’s people were perpetually dissing me”. Well, we'd certainly never got Brown using that kind of language, and this may or may not have directly contributed to Brown’s downfall. Blair, at least partly, must have thought it had, since he is, after all, also quoted in his book as saying he found his sometime nemesis a “strange” human being.

This was never going to be Frost versus Nixon, and Blair was never going to fall on his sword

By contrast, Blair, evidently, still has the common touch in spades, though it didn’t really look like it during the first five minutes of the interview: his arms may have been propped, in a manner that wanted to convey openness and expansiveness, on either side of his arm rests, but it was obvious that he wasn’t sitting comfortably at all. In fact, he hadn’t looked this ill at ease since his spot on Richard and Judy some years back when he’d volunteered for their daft one-minute phone-in quiz slot.

Nonetheless, one didn’t come away feeling short-changed, for would Blair, during his time in office, have ever admitted his “weird certainty” of leading the Labour Party even before the death of John Smith? Probably not. Back then he would have been far too concerned of sounding slightly mad and messianic – and, in any case, Alistair Campbell, no doubt, wouldn’t have let him. Now that he was left only at the mercy of History, and not the voters, Blair could speak with a kind of cautious candour. So he talked of his mistakes: the foxhunting ban, and more problematically, the Freedom of Information Act. He talked of his triumphs – well, his one major triumph, which was Northern Ireland. His relationship with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness was characterised by manipulation on all sides, he admitted, and there was a lot of “creative ambiguity” employed in their dealings with each other - a nice phrase, which, of course, left you feeling kind of ambiguous about the whole thing.

But on questions concerning the Iraq war – despite splitting hairs on some technicality regarding the legality of an invasion - and, more scarily, Iran, Marr pushed until “creative ambiguity” wasn’t a place where Blair could easily hide. On Iran he admitted that he’d fully support a military invasion if she continued to develop nuclear weapons.

Blair has never had much room for self-doubt, that’s for sure, and his self-belief was neatly summed up thus: “Some of us are Right versus Left; some of us are right versus wrong.” Quite. But as for the Left within his own party – despite giving every indication to the contrary when it came down to concrete policy matters – Blair still insisted that Labour would always have his full support “even if it’s Diane” who ends up leading it. This was where Blair’s cautious candour suddenly stopped sounding quite so sincere, but it raised a welcome laugh at any rate.

Marr doesn’t have Rottweiller instincts like Paxman, and this would have been a very different interview if he had. Rather, I’d say, he is more of a friendly-looking sniffer dog, or a floppy-eared blood hound. But though this ensured that the questioning was indeed serious and thorough, it also made the interview - since this was no rousing theatre of confrontation - more than a little dull. This was never going to be Frost versus Nixon, and Blair was never going to fall on his sword; but all said and done, I do think Marr got us closer to the measure of the man.

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