Sunday, July 1

Tony Blair, As I Knew Him!


“We’ll negotiate a withdrawal from the E.E.C. which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs.” Tony Blair, Election Manifesto 1983.

“I am a passionate pro-European. I always have been.” Tony Blair, addressing the European Parliament, 23 June 2005.

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A ramble on a wet Sunday afternoon.
by Peter Troy

I have, as I enjoy saying, met every Prime Minister since (and including) the late Lord (Harold) Wilson. Some only briefly such as Wilson when I was still a school boy in 1969. Others such as Baroness Thatcher on a number of memorable occasions. All without exception left an positive and in differing ways a lasting impression on me. Below I describe my encounters with the former Prime Minister the Right Honourable Tony Blair.

I first met Anthony Charles Linton Blair on the platform of Darlington Railway station in 1983. Tony Blair was pointed out to me by my travelling companion, he was with fellow MP Peter Mandleson the then MP for the adjoining constituency of Hartlepool. I say meeting but that is actually a bit of applied spin - we both got into the same railway carriage.
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It was later said by both Blair and Mandleson that the founding principles of New Labour were discussed on their frequent trips together from and to the north together. Perhaps I was, unwittingly in the same railway carriage at the time that a significant project in British Political History was being planned. I very much doubt it since I suspect that the New Labour Project was developed elsewhere and by others and that the two future Statesmen were applying some famous New Labour spin.

My second encounter and first proper meeting with the future Prime Minister was two years later. The occasion was a debate in the local community centre at the seaside village of Marske near Redcar on the North East coast. My local Conservative MP, and friend, the late enigmatic Richard Holt was fronting a motion supporting Britain's Nuclear Deterrent and Tony Blair was enthuasticly supporting the CND policy of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. Blair had the packed meeting very much on his side and he played to the 'gallery's with impressive panache; I can 22 years later still recall key parts of his speech.

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Blair apposed the government's (and every government since 1945) commitment to the well established NATO nuclear defence strategy. I was very interested in the debate. At the time I held a position with the Royal Observer Corp the front line of the UKs early warning system in the event of a Nuclear attack. The debate on that evening in 1985 was won by the CND supporters due in no small part to Blair's eloquent presentation on, as he put it, the evils of the UK having nuclear warheads. Funny how flexible 'conviction' politicians can be.

My next encounter with Mr Blair was years later in the Autumn of 2002 when at a business meeting at the splendid country hotel Hardwick Hall near Sedgefield a Labour Party organised meeting of about 100 specially invited local businessmen met the Prime Minister. It is a much valued aspect of British Political life that relative easy access is possible to senior Politicians. The ability to ask questions directly of those that represent us and indeed govern us is a vital to our hard defended democracy; lest we forget this at our peril.

Blair delivered a short speech insisting to the surprised meeting Chairman Martin McTague (a local Labour Party Branch Chairman, FSB activist and Businessman) that he would like as much time for questions as possible. Blair had been warned at the start of the meeting by Mr McTague that I was (at that time) both the local FSB Chairman and UKIP Party Chairman in Sedgefield.

Questions were taken in groups of three - an old political trick which can be used by to avoid answering difficult questions. Most questions were of a domestic or parochial nature, Martin McTague eventually pointing nervously to me said "The Man with the yellow tie and glasses". A curious description since I had known Martin for a number of years, in fact like most of the other FSB activists in the North East at that time I had recruited him into the organisation.

''Prime Minster'' I said, rising to my feet having been handed a faulty roving mic. "The European Commission attaches equal importance to the UK embracing Regionalisation as it does to adopting the European Single Currency (the Euro), do you endorse the Commissions' position? '' The PM smiled and asked me directly on who's behalf I was asking the question. I returned the smile and thundered (the mic had now failed) ''The Darlington Branch of the Federation of Small Businesses Prime Minister, the Branch meets monthly in your constituency.'' Blair held the smile, his long reply surprised me and perhaps many others in the room. ''There are some members of the Cabinet that are much less supportive of Regionalisation than others,'' Blair distinctly and memorably commented in his reply.

The comment was clearly a coded way of saying that he was not fully behind his Deputy's (John Prescott) UK's regionalisation agenda. Perhaps Blair was relived when two years later FSB branch delegates rejected the Regionalisation of England at their annual conference in 2004. Blair was personally, I suspect, mightily relived when the people of the North East voted by a huge majority in a referendum in September 2004 not to have an elected regional assembly and thus kick Prescott's regionalisation plans into the long grass.

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I have subsequently wondered how keen Blair was on the "European Project", his lack of obvious enthusiasm at the end of 2002 to the UK adopting the Euro was my lasting impression of the meeting.

In Spring 2004 a brief encounter with the Prime Minister at a gathering of North East Business people was little more than an over controlled Labour Party event at which Blair arrived 90 minutes late delivered short a speech and promtly left. Much mumbling occurred and the event was described by at least one commentator as pure contempt. Blair looked and sounded tense. One positive, but unintended, result of the event was that I was able to campaign the European Parliamentary Elections (where I was the lead candidate for UKIP in all of Scotland) till the election in June with first hand experience of New Labour's arrogance.

By the Summer of 2006 Tony Blair had announced that he was 'going' but when was still the big question in the Westminster Village soap opera which played out with annoying monotony on most news current affairs programmes as well as in the UK National newspapers. Blair returned to yet an other North East (Labour Party) Business Forum event once again hosted by Martin McTague at Hardwick Hall.

On this occasion a very relaxed Prime Minister was only 30 minutes late for the breakfast meeting. Upon arriving in the magnificent meeting room Blair was keen to wade straight into questions from about 60 assembled business people. I got in first: '' Did the Prime Minister still seek to be at the heart of the EU''. Being at the ''Heart of Europe'' was a term he often repeated in his early days at Number 10, an expression he had adopted from his predecessor, Sir John Major.

I felt compelled to ask the question because at a meeting of the EU Heads of Government (The European Council ) a week previously the official EU photograph had The Right Honourable Gentleman lurking shyly in the corner; a point I built into the question. This was a question the PM clearly enjoyed replying to - since he returned to it several times during the hour long meeting to the obvious annoyance of a few of my fellow guests. Needless to say despite his many words Blair did not actually answer the question, though I did enjoy the verbal exchange, particularly when I pointed out, with the utmost respect, that the PM may not have heard my full question.

The meeting that day was under Chatham House rules, thus I could not repeat (for fear of upsetting the Labour Party in the North East) the PMs reply even if I could recall it. However, what I do clearly remember observing was very confident Statesman who was obviously enjoying his role on the world stage, if not on the domestic front. As he exited the meeting room he had to pass me as he did so he gave me that now world famous Blair smile (some say cheesy grin) adding: '' till next time Peter''.
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Last Thursday evening (28 June) a removal van arrived at Myrobella, the Blair's constituency home in the village of Trimdon Colliery County Durham. On the light grey vehicle was written the removal company's logo ''Moving with care across the world''.

Last Friday morning Tony Blair no longer Prime Minister or indeed a Member of Parliament, but still of course a Privy Councillor, was photographed by The Northern Echo carrying his own bag from his limousine to platform one at Darlington Railway Station to catch the 12.01 to Kings Cross, the first part of his journey across the world as a special envoy. I wish him well, till the next time we meet.

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PT Sedgefield, County Durham

1 comment:

Sarah Hopperty said...

Nice one Peter