Lord Levy: Terrible news of weapons expert's death left Blair crying 'When will this end?'


Last updated at 00:26 04 May 2008

During the spring of 2004, Tony seemed to be gradually worn down by the twin weight of Iraq and by Gordon Brown's pressure for an announcement that he, not Tony, would lead a third-term Labour Government.

Blair's problems had been building for some time but even I had been shocked by the tone of depression and despondency in his voice when he phoned from the Far East the previous summer.

The call itself was not a surprise: the news had already broken that MoD weapons expert David Kelly had been found dead.

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Under pressure: Blair was worn down by criticism over Iraq and Gordon Brown’s drive to oust him

Kelly had been named as the source of journalist Andrew Gilligan's reports that the Government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Although initial indications suggested suicide, the political impact would obviously be serious.

Tony sounded devastated.

"When will all this end?" he said. "What am I going to do?" He had already decided to set up an inquiry, but kept saying how horrible it was that someone had lost his life because of a battle over politics.

I tried to calm him down. Kelly's death was horrible and tragic. "But you have to ask yourself whether anything you did, or could have done, was responsible," I said.

"I know you'll want to blame yourself. That's only human. But you can't help anyone by beating up on yourself."

For a while he succeeded, although one question at a news conference in Japan suggesting that he had Kelly's "blood on his hands" badly hurt and shocked him.

Even Lord Hutton's inquiry into Kelly's death, which cleared Blair of any blame, only briefly revived him.

By early May 2004, he seemed to have finally lost the will to fight on.

He would see out his second term, but felt that the repeated media assaults over Iraq - and Gordon's fixation on replacing him - were making his job impossible.

On May 11, Gilda and I arranged to have dinner with the Blairs at a small private room at Wiltons, the Jermyn Street restaurant. The topic of conversation was the country's future, and that of its Prime Minister.

I had made a list of the pros and cons of Tony staying on.

There were, I tried to persuade him, many more pros. And there was one question he had to ask himself: was the job done or would he regret leaving in midstream, risking the reversal of the changes he had begun to make and, in effect, admitting his critics were right?

We spoke for more than two hours and I could almost see Tony starting to recover his will to carry on.

Being Prime Minister was no longer easy, he accepted. But it was more than just a job. It was a responsibility, a privilege, and he had to get back to the business of proving that he was equal to both.

The next morning, Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, called. "I don't know what you said to him last night," he said, "but it had its effect. He's a different man."

Cherie, too, called to say how grateful she was. She had been urging her husband to pull out of his increasing despair and re-engage with the challenges he still believed were central to making Britain safer, fairer, more confident and more successful.

But the fact is that even Cherie's voice was not the crucial factor. Tony did value her opinion yet in every political decision that mattered, even her voice was always less important than his own.

None of our words would have mattered had not Tony himself wanted to carry on.

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General: Brown doesn't value our troops

People saw my relationship with Tony Blair, and less directly with others in the Labour hierarchy, as useful in conveying messages they felt were important but often unheard.

Not long after the Kosovo crisis, General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested I visit the British troops who were playing a key role in ensuring longer-term stability in the Balkans.

I readily accepted the offer. The visit left me not only hugely impressed by General Guthrie but also in awe of the professionalism and dedication of our troops.

The message Guthrie had clearly wanted me to take away, however, was not so much for Tony's ears as for Gordon Brown's.

Guthrie was convinced that in a post-Cold War world, Britain's Armed Forces were likely to face unpredictable challenges.

He was deeply concerned by what he saw as the Chancellor's lack of interest in, or real understanding of, military matters.

He was also alarmed that the Armed Forces were under pressure to cut costs at a time when they were likely to be asked to do more, not less.

Guthrie warned me that, in years ahead, this would prove to be a false economy that Britain would come to regret.

I was persuaded by his impassioned argument, and regretted only that I did not have a sufficiently close relationship with Gordon to press the point with him.

I regret that even more now, in the light of the major commitments of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, of course, does Guthrie, who along with other senior military figures, finally went public with his message after Gordon became Prime Minister.

Abridged extracts from A Question Of Honour, by Michael Levy, to be published by Simon & Schuster at £18.99 on May 12. To order your copy at the special price of £17.10 with free p&p call The Review Bookstore on 0845 606 4213.

Copyright Lord Michael Levy, 2008.

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