Shrinking Blair haunts himself as the ghost of his own past

Tony Blair

There was a time when he walked into the Labour party like he was walking on to a yacht. The vanity is still there, but the man isn’t.

Tony Blair is visibly shrinking. He’s lost weight and, even with a light dusting of powder for the cameras, he looks withered and gaunt. Without his cheekbones for support, his face would have collapsed in on itself long ago. Political or hubristic entropy. Take your pick.

Then there’s the eyes, hollowed out and desperate. The wild, sparkling death stare now more often turned inward on himself; but still all he sees is torment and confusion. Somehow, somewhen, the world lost its moral bearings and now there are only enemies to the left of him, jokers to the right, and here he is. Stuck in the middle with himself. A man more sinned against than sinning. A man more misunderstood than misunderstanding. He’s tried confession, but there’s just nothing to confess. He still believes it. Just. But it’s getting harder each day and the cracks are showing.

“Morning,” he said quietly, almost timidly, to break the silence that had greeted his arrival at the foreign affairs select committee, to give evidence on Libya. Crispin Blunt, the committee chairman, looked on benignly. “May I start by putting on record that I believe Libya to be the single greatest foreign achievement of your time in government.” Tony looked stunned. He’d expected to be damned as others had damned him before; now there were signs of long-forgotten love and gratitude. Maybe there was a god, after all. Or maybe it was a trap.

It took time for Blunt to reassure Tony it wasn’t a trap. Libya was his crowning glory, his deal with President Gaddafi the greatest piece of diplomacy since … well, ever. Blunt left no hyperbole or cliche unturned and slowly Tony began to sit up straighter, his jacket inflating. He still had it, damn it; he still had it. But he didn’t really. “The tragedy of Libya is that the country had so much potential,” he said. The tragedy of Tony is that he didn’t realise he might as well have been talking about himself.

Tony’s appearance before the committee was always bound to be more of a personal psychodrama than an exercise in information gathering, once Blunt had signalled there were to be no tricky questions for the former prime minister. On one occasion John Baron strayed into the more awkward territory of whether PC Yvonne Fletcher and Lockerbie got brushed under the carpet in the eagerness to strike a deal with Gaddafi. “That’s beyond the realms of this enquiry,” snapped Blunt, though Tony was all forced smiles and happy to answer. Nothing had been brushed under any carpet. Ever.

What Blunt really wanted to know was, given Tony’s immense wisdom on all things Libyan – the knowledge he had accrued from destabilising Iraq must have been taken as read, if he would have been as gung ho as David Cameron in bombing Tripoli. Tony’s hands twitched before grabbing the table for support. “Evolution not revolution is always the best way forward,” he said, trying to blank out the visions of dossiers dodgified, and UN resolutions ignored, that flashed before Christ crucified. Warming to this theme, Tony drifted off to a parallel universe where Libya would have been saved from turmoil had he still been prime minister, as his personal relationship with Gaddafi could have ensured a peaceful regime transition.

Yet this was a peace more personally dangerous than any war. As he had damned Cameron, so Chilcot would damn him more. He backtracked hurriedly, reassuring the committee that such matters of state were extremely difficult and that he was certain Cameron had done the right thing. We prime ministers must stick together. “So you weren’t weeping into your pillow when we followed France into Libya?” Blunt asked. He had been weeping. Of course he had. But not for Libya.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Friday 11th December 2015 16.54 Europe/London

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