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Memoir puts spotlight back on Blair

By Robin Oakley, CNN Political Contributor
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Tony Blair's controversial memoir
  • The memoirs of former British prime minister Tony Blair were released on Wednesday
  • In some ways, Blair was Labour's most successful leader ever, Oakley says
  • Reputation was tarnished by his backing for George W. Bush of the war in Iraq
  • Blair will steer clear of anti-war protesters on publication day, having dinner at the White House

(CNN) -- In some ways, former British prime minister Tony Blair was Labour's most successful leader ever.

No other Labour leader won three consecutive elections. After it had been 18 years in the wilderness he turned a reformed "New Labour" into a party of government.

He played a significant role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. His government devolved power to Scotland and Wales, giving them their own parliament and assembly.

New Labour introduced a minimum wage and gave control of interest rates to the independent Bank of England. In an age of summitry he became one of the most recognisable leaders across the world.

Blair even forced changes on the Conservative party, driving its leaders to the center ground of politics and to supporting significant public spending. But few ex-prime ministers are the butt of so many comedians' jokes, few have been so unpopular.

The most obvious explanation for the derision Tony Blair currently attracts in his own country -- he is far more popular in America -- is that the war in Iraq in which Blair linked himself enthusiastically with American President George W. Bush was unpopular in Europe, in Britain and even in his own party.

Video: Tony Blair book revelations
Few ex-prime ministers are the butt of so many comedians' jokes, few have been so unpopular
--Robin Oakley
  • Tony Blair
  • Iraq

Blair was widely seen as Bush's poodle, failing to obtain concessions such as a more vigorous U.S. effort to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians in return for his dashing about the world as Bush's most enthusiastic supporter.

More than that, the British public came to feel that Blair had lied to them in making the case for war, most notably with his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he was prepared to use.

They believed that Blair and his one-time press secretary Alastair Campbell had doctored security services material to find an excuse for joining Bush in his war.

It was not just the war itself, it was the excessive "spin" indulged in by Blair and his spokesmen which saw the British public, and then his own party, lose trust in Blair.

The inquiries he was forced to concede after the suicide of weapons scientist Dr. David Kelly, who had been named as the source of allegations the British government had "sexed up" its anti-Saddam dossier, revealed the inner workings of government as never before, exposing Downing Street's already suspected obsession with spin and media manipulation.

Blair has half-admitted already that he only fully understood how to use power in his third term, by which time his authority and popularity were waning and his majority was smaller.

He failed in his ambition to remove British suspicions of the European Union and take his country into the Single European Currency -- the last option firmly blocked by his long-time Finance Minister and eventual successor Gordon Brown.

Nor did it help Blair's reputation that as he approached the end in office his administration was tainted by the "cash for honours" scandal which saw him questioned by the police.

That affair was about channelling funds to his party, not about personal enrichment, but it left a sour trail behind a man who had promised to clean up public life.

Certainly the public has not taken kindly to the riches swiftly amassed by Blair since he left office. In general the populace does not seem to object to retired politicians earning solid sums from joining the boards of public companies. Political salaries in Britain are not generous on the world scale.

But eyebrows have been raised at stories of Blair earning around $18 million from his commercial interests advising companies, smoothing introductions to governments and making motivational speeches at six figures a pop.

A post Downing Street career which has enabled the Blairs to put together an expensive portfolio of nine properties is seen as way beyond permissible limits.

With estimates that Blair's political memoirs could gross in the region of $6-9 million, the former prime minister announced just before their publication that all the proceeds from his book will go to the Royal British Legion, a charity which helps to look after ex-Service men and women, in particular to build a rehabilitation centre for those who have lost limbs. He wanted to honor their "courage and sacrifice."

Some welcomed that as an act of expiation and of significant generosity. But Blair, it seems, couldn't win. Others groused that it was "blood money," with opponents of the Iraq war pointing out that none of the proceeds would go to the 100,000 plus Iraqis estimated to have lost their lives as a result of the war alongside the 4,421 American and 179 British service personnel who died in the conflict and its aftermath.

The Royal British Legion has been careful to point out that while it is happy to accept Blair's donation, that does not amount to an endorsement of his policies.

For Blair's own party there are other objections to the memoirs. While the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has been governing Britain, Labour has been an ineffective opposition, its time taken up in a long drawn out selection process to find a successor to Gordon Brown.

Now, with Blair's memoirs following those of his one-time spin chief and former Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson, his old party colleagues fear another bout of Labour navel-gazing with more exposure of the bitter personal quarrels between Blair and Brown. Brown has indicated he is ready to fight back if he is slighted.

The wider world will be looking at Blair's memoirs in a different light. They will want to see whether the continues to assert, as he has done in a number of public forums, that he has no regrets about the Iraq war and his part in it and that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.

Diplomats will want to see his justification for participation and what his true assessment is now of George W. Bush and key figures in his administration like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, particularly in their failure to plan for the war's aftermath in Iraq, a country currently without a government six months after an election.

With many in Britain saying that his wars have increased the risk from terrorism, not diminished it, the world community will want to see Blair's reasons for joining the continuing war in Afghanistan and his assessment of the hopes of Middle East peace, given his role in trying to shore up the finances of the Palestinian administration.

Those who take him at face value on his Faith Foundation will want to know how he really hopes now to improve relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

As for Mr. Blair, it seems he is not keen to spend too much time hearing his countrymen's opinions on his book. Having given just one advance interview to the British media he will be well clear of anti-war protesters on publication day, having dinner at the White House