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Friday, 29 June 2007

29 June 2007

There haven’t been many occasions over the past couple of years when both T Blair and G Brown can be said to have had a good day – but I reckon last Wednesday was one of them.

TB left the House of Commons to a standing ovation; GB finally got what he’s been waiting for for so long. But I fear the warm glow of satisfaction will be short-lived; I can’t help wondering how long it’ll be before normal service is resumed.

Just consider: Blair wouldn’t have gone this week if Brown hadn’t threatened a coup last Autumn. Brown wouldn’t have threatened a coup if he hadn’t become convinced that Blair’s word could no longer be trusted. Not since Cain and Abel has a relationship between two grown men been so destructive.

As for that Commons ovation, what was that all about? Labour MPs had been fretting for months about their opinion poll ratings under Blair, so how come suddenly he was their hero? And the Tories, well, since when did they suddenly decide that he was the best thing since sliced bread? The words “sentimental” and “hypocrites” spring to mind, although of course, I wouldn’t dream of using them.

I was struck when we spoke to voters in and around Birmingham on Wednesday evening how many seem to think they know all they need to know about Mr Brown. Sure, we’ve seen enough of him over the past decade, but it’s been very much a monochrome image. Now we get the full colour version. Whether you find it an improvement or not depends, I suspect, on your taste in political colour schemes.

How fascinating, though, that he has chosen Mark Malloch Brown, former UN deputy secretary-general, to be his minister for Africa, Asia and the UN. This is a man who was deeply loathed by the Bush administration while he was at the UN (the feeling, I think it’s fair to say, was mutual) – and who, for a top diplomat, was stunningly undiplomatic on our programme a couple of months ago when he delivered his less than favourable verdict on Tony Blair’s foreign policy achievements.

I know a lot of you find all this politics stuff less than enthralling. But you will know as regular readers of this newsletter that I believe passionately that politics do matter. (By the way, next week will mark my 100th newsletter: if you feel like celebrating, why don’t you try to inveigle two more of your friends into becoming subscribers? You know you want to …)

Political honeymoons don’t last long these days. (Ask David Cameron …) Mr Brown has an impending US Justice Department investigation into BAE Systems to deal with, to say nothing of that continuing Scotland Yard investigation into cash for honours. And how long will it be before he and his predecessor fall out over Middle East peace initiatives? Is the world big enough for two British prime ministers to strut their stuff on the global stage?

Oh, and did I mention Iraq? I didn’t get the impression when I spoke to the Iraqi foreign minister last night that he was entirely confident about the new PM’s commitment to keeping troops there much longer. And the deaths of three more British servicemen on his first day in office will certainly have reminded Mr Brown of his responsibilities.

So, yes, it is a new chapter. Remember when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher in 1990? In his very first parliamentary speech as PM, he announced he was abolishing the hated poll tax. Don’t try to tell me Gordon Brown isn’t capable of an equally dramatic gesture. If you care who runs the country and what they intend to do about schools, hospitals, pensions, the environment and our relations with the rest of the world – well, I’m sorry, there’s nothing for it: you’re just going to have to carry on tuning in.

And yes, yet again I have to remind you that our friend and colleague Alan Johnston is still being held captive in Gaza. It’s nearly 15 weeks now, which is 15 weeks too long. Please don’t forget him.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

22 June 2007

I dreamt the other night that I was walking in Downing Street and stopped to pick up a crumpled piece of paper out of the gutter. It seemed to be the draft of a farewell speech at someone’s leaving party.

“Y’know, people might find this hard to believe, but, well, I guess this is it. I mean, people will agree, I think, when they look back, that things really did get better. I’m not saying it’s always been easy, but it has been a privilege, for the people of this great country even more than for me, to have been your leader for these past 10 years.

“Look, I know not everyone agrees with everything I’ve done, but at least people know that, agree or disagree, I’ve always done what I know I believe to be what I believe I know to be right. And y’know, that’s what matters in life … principles matter, doing what’s right matters, even when people say it’s not right, because we all have a responsibility not only to do what we believe in, but also to believe in what we do.

“Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. This is a time for our country to look forward, to a time when elder statesmen will be able to advise on where we should be looking – right, left, right again, just like we were taught as children when we crossed the road – because, y’know, it doesn’t really matter all that much who’s living here in Downing Street … what matters is what’s gone before, the foundations that have been laid, the foundation hospitals that have been built but not yet paid for. People know that I will always be here, ready to serve, ready, right or wrong, to say what I passionately believe to be right.

“So this really isn’t a goodbye at all. Because true leadership, the kind of leadership that means something, my kind of leadership, means never saying goodbye. This is a great nation, and it deserves great leaders. For the past 10 years I’ve done my best for this country of ours, and I know my good friend Gordon will do his best too. That’s why I know he will need me here to help him.

“Let us never forget, for the sake of generations as yet unborn, as we seek to build that great city upon a hill, what this project of ours has always been about. The future, not the past. Hope, not despair. Opportunities for the many, not the few.

“And now, you must excuse me, because, y’know, the Queen is waiting …”

And then I woke up. By this time next week, he really will be gone. My personal memories of the Blair era are principally of those early Labour conferences after he’d been elected as leader. He grabbed the party by the throat and re-invented it. It was breath-taking to watch: after the cautious gradualism of John Smith and the heroic emotionalism of Neil Kinnock, here was a man with a plan.

In those early years, Blair was a consummate political operator. In 2002, I spent an hour with him at Downing Street, while he fielded questions for a live global phone-in programme for the World Service. It was an impressive performance: if there was one thing he excelled at, it was communicating.

But was Enoch Powell right when he said that all political careers end in failure? Has Blair’s ended in failure? My poor bookshelves are already groaning in anticipation of the tomes to come: “The Blair Years: An Assessment.” Then there’ll be “The Blair Years: A Re-assessment.” To be followed, no doubt, by “The Blair Years: A New Assessment.” But don’t worry, you won’t have to read any of them.

On Wednesday, Alan Johnston spent his 100th day in captivity in Gaza. The number of signatures on the online petition calling for his release now exceeds 170,000. It’s still available via the Have Your Say button on the BBC News website.

Friday, 15 June 2007

15 June 2007

I’ll deal with Gaza in a moment, but first, forgive me if I seem to have swallowed a dictionary. It’s all because our soon-to-be-departed Prime Minister used the word “feral” in his speech about the media.

“Today's media,” he said, “hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Feral (adj.): a. Existing in a wild or untamed state b. Having returned to an untamed state from domestication.

I rather suspect that Mr Blair thinks “feral” is simply another word for “wild”. But in fact it means a bit more than that: so perhaps the key to the PM’s thinking lies in the word “untamed”.

Does he really want “tame” media? Media that take politicians’ words always at face value? That don’t question, or doubt, or criticise? Surely not.

Does he really want newspapers and broadcasters who merely listen carefully to what politicians say and report it faithfully, word for word, just as they used to do in the good old days? The public, he says, need to be properly and accurately informed – but are not well served because the media are interested only in a quick headline and a new sensation to attract the attention of an iPod-addicted generation.

I wonder if you agree. I’d be interested to know whether you think you are well served by the media, or whether you think Mr Blair has put his finger on something that needs to be addressed.

Me? He doth protest too much, methinks, although he is right to say that we do need to think about the relationship between politicians and media. Personally, I tend to go along with the American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken: the ideal relationship between us is like the one between a dog and a lamp-post. The PM, I suspect, is closer to the character in the Tom Stoppard play Night and Day: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

Sure, journalists hunting in packs is not a pretty sight. Yes, the demands of 24-hour news channels mean we sometimes get things ridiculously out of proportion. But believe me, those saintly politicians don’t always speak only the unvarnished truth. And I do wonder if Mr Blair ever asks himself why the man who used to be known as “Teflon Tony” because no muck ever stuck to him eventually turned into the battered soon-to-be ex-PM we see before us today. (A clue: try a four-letter word, beginning with “I” and ending with “Q”.)

When he talks of journalists “tearing people and reputations to bits”, I suspect he is thinking of three people in particular: his wife Cherie, his former comrade-in-arms Peter Mandelson, and his trusted envoy and fund-raiser Lord Levy. True, they have all been savagely attacked in the media, at, I’m sure, great personal cost to themselves. Were the attacks justified? Not for me to say, m’Lud.

And what about Gaza? Well, with Hamas now in control, the Palestinians are probably further than ever from realising their dream of an independent state. But here’s a thought: given how terrified Arab governments will be of a militant Islamist party in control (Egypt? Jordan? Saudi Arabia?) – and of Iran’s ever-growing influence in the region -- I wonder if they might all try to get together and convene a regional conference to try to thrash out some answers. Back in 1991, the Madrid peace conference was co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union. Invitees were Israel, Egypt, Jordan (plus Palestinians), Syria and Lebanon. Can you imagine Mr Bush and Mr Putin doing something similar now? No, frankly, nor can I.

In October 2000, at the start of what became known as the second Intifada, I wrote from Israel: “I have never felt so fearful for the future of this blood-soaked region.” I’m sorry to say I still hold to those words today.

Our colleague Alan Johnston is still being held in Gaza – it’ll be 14 weeks, 98 days, on Monday. The number of signatures on our online petition calling for his release has now risen to nearly 150,000. Thank you to all who have signed it.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

8 June 2007

Cast your eye over the G8 beauty parade pictures from Germany. Now get a marker pen and put a big black line through the faces of the following leaders: Tony Blair, George Bush and Vladimir Putin.

Why? Because this time next year, two of them will have gone, and the third will be well on his way to the door marked Exit. Mr Blair takes his final bow in three weeks’ time; President Putin stands down after the Russian presidential election next March (at least, that’s what the constitution says he should do … there are those who wonder if he might be tempted to hang around a bit longer); and in a year from now President Bush will be in the final months of his eight-year stint in the White House.

Which leads me to wonder who the real global leaders are these days. Angela Merkel of Germany seems to have done wonders for her reputation while steering both the EU and the G8, and in France Nicolas Sarkozy can’t wait to get started. And although he’s not a member of the G8 – and even though you probably wouldn’t recognise him if he passed you in the street – don’t forget President Hu Jintao of China.

And my point is? Well, simply this: things change. Leaders change. National interests might not change, but the way political leaders interpret them does – and that means that the coming couple of years are more than unusually uncertain.

Suppose in early 2009, President Barack Obama of the US meets President Sergei Ivanov of Russia. Suppose later this year Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK meets Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (a rather more likely scenario, I grant you, than the Obama-Ivanov one). Will they get on? Will they trust each other? We don’t know … and that’s my point.

As for G8 summits themselves, I confess that I have very mixed feelings. Do we really need all these world leaders to jet off every year to some isolated resort, accompanied by the inevitable battalions of officials and security people, so that they can simply sign a document that has been painstakingly negotiated by their officials over several months?

Or are they right to argue that only when they all sit down together – and more importantly, when they break off for their “unilaterals” (when two leaders meet in private somewhere) – can they do the really difficult deals? Perhaps they just like the feeling that there are some things only the top people can do.

Would the Gleneagles promises on helping Africa have been made two years ago if there hadn’t been a Gleneagles? In theory, there’s no reason why not – after all governments can use email too – but in practice, those promises weren’t made without the artificially-imposed deadline of an impending G8 summit. So on balance, yes, I suppose the summits do serve a purpose.

It’s nearly 13 weeks now – that’s 91 days -- since our colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza – and there’s been no word since the release of that video a week ago. Might his captors reckon that 100 days is long enough? We can but hope …

Friday, 1 June 2007

1 June 2007

I have a simple rule of thumb when I have to deal with stories from the world of “intelligence” – I don’t believe a word I’m told.

I have read enough about “black propaganda” and “psy-ops” (psychological operations) to know that information – and misinformation – is often used as a weapon of war. So I suggest that you treat anything you read or hear about Alexander Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi and the rest of them with a healthy dollop of scepticism.

I remember once during my days as a newspaper reporter getting a phone call from a man who said he was a glazier who’d been hired by MI5 to bug what was then the Soviet Trade Mission in north London. It seemed a pretty unlikely tale, but we checked it out, and it seemed to be true. But we couldn’t be sure until the editor told us one afternoon that he’d been contacted by a “friend in Whitehall” asking him to pull the story. That’s when we knew it must be true.

So, lesson one: just because it doesn’t seem likely doesn’t mean it’s not true. Lesson Two: Intelligence agencies are not infallible. (Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?) Lesson Three: what they tell us may not be the whole truth. Or sometimes not even part of the truth.

Yes, I do believe that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. Yes, I do believe that the police believe they have enough evidence against Mr Lugovoi to justify his prosecution. Do I think Mr Litvinenko was in touch with MI6? I think it’s possible. Do I believe they tried to hire Mr Lugovoi? I think that’s possible too.

So did MI6 murder Mr Litvinenko? I have no idea. Was the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky involved? Again, no idea. Did someone want Litvinenko dead to send a message to other future renegade intelligence operatives? Maybe. Or did someone want him dead so that that his murder would implicate the Kremlin and sour relations between London and Moscow? It’s possible.

The intelligence world is, as I’ve written before, a wilderness of mirrors. Sometimes, what is done is less important than what is said about it afterwards. Things are never what they seem. I wrote two weeks ago about the frosty state of relations between Moscow, Europe and the US, and I hope you’ve been able to listen to at least some of Gabriel Gatehouse’s superb reports on the programme this week from Russia … if not, they’re all available via the Listen Again facility on the website. The West has got used to ignoring Russia since the collapse of the old Soviet empire; and Mr Putin doesn’t like being ignored.

By the way, just a quick note to David Cameron: in case you hadn’t noticed, the honeymoon is over. Fleet Street has decided you’re fair game now, so put your helmet on. It’s going to get tough out there.

Finally, it’ll be 12 weeks on Monday since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza. I’ve just seen the video showing Alan, apparently well and in good health, although clearly speaking according to an agreed script. Let’s hope it’s a sign of better news to come. More than 120,000 people have signed our online petition calling for Alan’s immediate release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it here.